Tag Archive | "Forex Markets"

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Markets Non-Plussed By Sour Employment Report


A sour US Labor Department non-farm payroll for December vibrated through global equity markets and gave the dollar reason to pause but the longer-term implications appeared tempered. Analysts had expected 196,000 new jobs created in the month but were rudely snapped to attention by the worst employment report in nearly three years. The economy only added 74,000 jobs in the month. November’s excellent report was revised upwards but ripples of uneasiness persisted.

By all accounts, this was a setback to the economy. Several analysts had gone as far to suggest 300,000 new jobs could be added. Blame was placed on the brutal weather that crossed the country, especially affecting the mid-West and Northeast.

Number of hours worked, a key component of the report, also shifted lower.  Again, blame was placed on the inclement weather. Investors immediately wondered what impact the report would have on the Federal Reserve.

Ironically, the unemployment rate dropped to 6.7 percent, a solid 0.3 points on the data. More than 380,000 left the workforce either through retirement or because they stopped receiving unemployment benefits. This is not the type reduction in unemployment the Federal Reserve had anticipated when it set its 6.5 percent target on halting the stimulus.  

The response to the disappointing news was muted, both in Washington and in equity and Forex markets. Investors seemed puzzled. Several disputed the figures and suggested an upward revision would be forthcoming in the February report. Earlier in the week, the ADP private sector payroll report had indicated significant job increase of more than 175,000.

Equity Markets

As investor debated the upcoming action by the Fed, markets seemed to take the new in stride. After their December announcement of a $10 billion monthly reduction in bond buying, the Fed will meet again on January 28-29 presumably to discuss another tapering addition.

On Wall Street, the Dow lost 7.71 points to 16,437.05 but the S&P and Nasdaq both posted small gains. The S&P 500 gained 4.24 points to 1,842.37, a 0.6 percent gain for the week, while the Nasdaq Composite gained 18.471 to 4,174.665.

The MSCI world index also posted a 0.6 percent gain for the day, marking a 0.4 percent gain for the week.

Mixed trade data from China sent Asian markets mildly lower. China’s December exports increased 4.3 percent, less than expected while exports grew by 8.3 percent, higher than expected.

In the UK, there was concern about a possible oil field accident. British markets were flat and the pound posted gains against the dollar as oil elevated slightly.

Forex Shifts

The dollar lost ground to the GBP, yen and euro but held firm against the Canadian dollar. The dollar index fell to 80.533 (0.46 percent), marking a one-week low.

Against the yen, the dollar fell to 103.83 yen before rebounding to 104.07, off Thursday 105 level.

Mario Draghi again repeated that the ECB would accommodate the banks with lower interest rates but said no action was forthcoming to resist the deflation possibility. The euro closed at 1.3667, up 0.44 percent. The consensus is that Europe’s banks are healthier than six months ago and that the troubled southern tier is recovering. Unemployment figures would seem to dispute that but there are signs that housing and manufacturing are improving.

British sterling closed the week at $1.6480, up 0.1 percent on Friday. The fate of the UK housing market is drawing political debate about the fate of the Help to Buy Programme.

While the dollar showed some weakness on Friday, investors increased their bets on the USD last week by the largest amount in four months. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission announced that $21.1 billion was invested in the currency last week.   

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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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Forex Volatility Continues Rising


This week witnessed another flareup in the eurozone sovereign debt crisis. As a result, volatility in the EUR/USD pair surged, by some measures to a record high. Even though the Euro rallied yesterday and today, this suggests that investors remain nervous, and that going forward, the euro could embark on a steep decline.


There are a couple of forex volatility indexes. The JP Morgan G7 Volatility Index is based on the implied volatility in 3-month currency options and is one of the broadest measures of forex volatility. As you can see from the chart above, the index is closing in on year-to-date high (excluding the spike in March caused by the Japanese tsunami), and is generally entrenched in an upward trend. Barring day-to-day spikes, however, it will take months to confirm the direction of this trend.

For specific volatility measurements, there is no better source of data than Mataf.net (whose founder, Arnaud Jeulin, I interviewed only last month). Here, you can find data on more than 30 currency pairs, charted across multiple time periods. You can see for the EUR/USD pair in particular that volatility is now at the highest point in 2011 and is closing in on a two-year high.


Meanwhile, the so-called risk-reversal rate for Euro currency options touched 3.1, which is greater than the peak of the credit crisis. This indicator represents a proxy for investor concerns that the Euro will collapse suddenly, and its high level suggests that this is indeed a growing concern. In addition, implied volatility in options contracts has jumped dramatically over the last week, which confirms that investors expect the euro to move dramatically over the next month.

What does all of this mean? In a nutshell, it shows that panic is rising in the forex markets. Last month, I used this notion as a basis for arguing that the dollar safe-haven trade will make a come-back. This would still seem to be the case, and should also benefit the Swiss Franc, which is nearing an all-time high against the euro. Naturally, it also implies that forex investors remain extremely concerned about a continued decline in the euro, and are rushing to hedge their exposure and/or close out long positions altogether.

Mataf.net suggests that this could make the EUR/USD an interesting pair to trade, since large swings in either direction will necessarily create opportunities for traders. While I have no opinion on such indiscriminate trading [I prefer to make directional bets based on fundamentals], I must nonetheless acknowledge the logic of such a strategy.

http://www.forexblog.org/2011/05/interview-with-arnaud-jeulin-of-mataf-net-try-a-lot-of-strategies.html

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Euro Nears Breaking Point


It’s deja vu all over again in the forex markets as another twist in the sovereign debt crisis has sent the euro tumbling by the greatest margin in nearly a year. It was only last month that I posted “The Euro (Still) has a Greek Problem,” and yet, forex markets are once again reacting to the possibility of a Greek default as thought it were a new development. At the very least, investors finally seem to be acknowledging the inevitable.

There have been several factors at work in this latest episode. On Monday, S&P downgraded its credit rating for Greece to CCC, following on a similar move by Moody’s. That means that Greece’s sovereign credit rating is now the lowest in the world, behind such eminent economies as Grenada and Ecuador. While the move was hardly noteworthy in itself, it represents one more straw on the camel’s back.

Meanwhile, Greece’s government is increasingly unstable, and Prime Minister George Papandreou has become so desperate that he has suggested forming an alliance with Greece’s most powerful opposition party. Meanwhile, violent riots outside Greek Parliament have reportedly become a daily occurrence, as the Greek populace has proven unwilling to accept wage cuts and tax increases.

As if that weren’t enough, there is tremendous uncertainty surrounding the next stage of the Greek bailout. No one can agree on what amount to give and what should be stipulated in return. Some parties think that private investors should be involved in the bailout by taking a “haircut” on the bonds that they own. Some members of the eurozone are balking about contributing any funds at all, wary of justifying it their own citizens and that it is merely forestalling the inevitable.

I think the NYTimes offered the best summary: “Funding fatigue is growing in the north European creditor countries, especially Germany, the Netherlands, Finland and Austria, just as austerity fatigue is mounting in Greece.” When you consider finally that Greek interest rates and credit default swap spreads have surged to record highs, it seems that default is really inevitable. If the IMF and European Union are so determined, they can push off default until 2013. Still, default now or default then is still default.

At this point, then, the only real question is what happens after Greece defaults. Will it be forced to leave the Eurozone? Will that push the rest of the Eurozone fringe closer towards default? Will the Euro collapse and cease to exist as a currency? What will happen then?

Unfortunately, I think the answer to all of those questions is yes. At the very least, Greece will be forced out of the eurozone. Bondholders will push interest rates in Ireland, Spain, and Portugal up to double-digit levels, trapping them in the same cycle in which Greece is currently ensnared. Given the exposure of French and German banks to the sovereign debt of financially troubled eurozone members, they will also require state bailouts, and so on.

In a recent op-ed published in The Financial Times, celebrity economies Nouriel Roubini argued that the only way to avoid a complete eurozone meltdown is if the euro depreciates rapidly “to restore competitiveness to the periphery” or if the European Union is able to rapidly achieve complete fiscal and economic union. Roubini argues that the former is difficult because of the ECB’s hawkishness, while the latter is precluded by political hurdles that remain too formidable to overcome.

As Greece inches ever closer to default, the markets will increasingly become gripped by utter uncertainty over the questions that I posed above. Central Banks will stop accumulating euro-denominated assets, and investment funds will similarly shun Europe. (In fact, there is already evidence that this is happening). While European interest rates are attractive relative to the rest of the G4, they are hardly enough to compensate investors for this uncertainty. And when the markets come to terms with this, the euro might finally reach its breaking point.

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S&P 500 Decouples from Euro?


While I have written quite about forex correlations in recent posts, the focus has primarily been on correlations that exist between currencies. In this post, I would like to address a correlation that exists between currencies and other forex markets- specifically the relationship between the Euro and US stocks.


If you look at the chart above, you can see that an unmistakable correlation exists between the S&P500 and the EUR/USD that stretches back at least six months. Generally speaking, when the EURUSD has risen, so has the S&P 500, and vice versa. In fact, this correlation is so airtight that one analyst recently discovered that the two financial vehicles often reach intra-day highs and lows within minutes of one another!

Why is this the case? In a nutshell, it is because the Euro – especially relative to the dollar – is a proxy for risk appetite. The same is necessarily true for US stocks. When investors are confident in the strength of the global economic recovery and the possibility of crisis is distant, the euro will rise. This has nothing to do with fundamentals in Europe, which are probably at least as bad as they are in the US. Of course, it may be connected with dollar weakness, since it is arguably the case that quantitative easing has both depressed the dollar and buoyed US stocks.

As I intimated in the title of this post, however, the S&P recently decoupled from the euro. Since the beginning of June, US equities have declined sharply, to the extent that they have given back most of their gains in the year-to-date. The EUR/USD, meanwhile, continued rising all the way until last week. While this has happened on a couple previous occasions, this was perhaps the sharpest break between the two.

I’m personally at a loss to explain why this happened. It has been conjectured that the driving force behind the correlation is algorithmic trading, and that hence, it must also represent the source of the break. In other words, high-frequency traders – which account for an ever-increasing proportion of forex volume – tweaked their trading algorithms so as not to buy the S&P 500 when the EURUSD rises, and vice versa.

It’s probably also the case that S&P 500 was falling for endogenous reasons- specifically a decline in GDP growth and earnings expectations which need not necessarily reflect itself in a stronger euro. In fact, in a normal functioning market, you would expect an inverse correlation; strong US economic fundamentals should translate into both a strong dollar and rising stocks. Could it be that worsening fundamentals are manifesting themselves in the form of a weak dollar and weak stocks?

Alas, the correlation has re-established itself over the last week, which means this is largely a moot issue. At the very least, it’s still worth being aware of, both insofar as it remains intact and in the event that it breaks down again.

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High-Frequency Traders Descend onto Forex Markets


According to a recent report by the Wall Street Journal, high-speed traders are quickly establishing themselves as the main force in forex markets. Just like in other financial markets, a significant portion of trading volume is dominated by computerized trading, in which huge blocks of currency can change hands multiple times in mere milliseconds. While this is certainly old news for hedge funds and other institutional traders, it may come as a slight surprise to retail traders, many of whom still see forex as the neglected stepsister of stocks, bonds, and other assets. Nonetheless, there are a number of implications for the forex markets, and retail traders would be wise to heed them.

Here are the facts: “High-frequency trading accounted for roughly 30% of all foreign-exchange flows, as of 2010, compared with 13% in 2004, according to Boston-based consulting firm Aite Group. (By contrast, 66% of global stocks trading is high frequency.” According to Aite Group, it will jump to 42% by the end 2011 and to 60% in 2012. “About 85% of the currency market’s growth in volume from 2007 to 2010 came from financial institutions like hedge funds [represented as other financial institutions in the chart below] rather than Wall Street’s traditional bank currency dealers, thanks partly to high-frequency traders.”

According to the Wall Street Journal, this is changing the way in which currencies are traded. Previously, for big blocks of currency, traders would have to manually request a quote from Wall Street brokerages, which still dominate forex trading through the interbank market. The brokerage would match up buyer and seller (or step in and fulfill one of the roles itself) and take a cut, in the form of the spread. Retail traders, on the other hand, have never known such a troublesome process, having always been afforded electronic quotes and instant execution. However, the price paid for this convenience comes in the form of wide spreads, since both your retail broker and its representative on the interbank markets must both earn a profit.

In fact, wide spreads recently came under attack by Karl Deninger and sparked a fierce debate about whether it is still possible for retail traders to turn a profit using high-frequency (albeit non-computerized) trading methods. Fortunately, the Wall Street Journal is reporting that spreads have already fallen to one pip (though it didn’t specify the currency pair) thanks to new systems that have been set up to cater to high-frequency traders. It seems only a matter of time before these systems are either adapted to the retail market and/or replace the interbank market as the market-maker for retail brokerages. (Given that a handful of banks are currently under investigation by the SEC for deceptive quoting practices, a changing of the guard probably isn’t such a bad thing!)

In addition, while high-frequency trading has increased liquidity and lowered spreads, it has probably increased volatility. Sudden spikes quickly becomes exacerbated as automatic stop orders flood the market. You can see from the chart below the abundance of such spikes, the most recent one on March 11 caused by the Japanese natural disasters. Overall volatility is also at elevated levels, though it’s impossible to know how much of this is due to an increase in high-frequency trading and how much is simply due to post-financial crisis uncertainty. In any event, retail traders with ultra-short time horizons have no choice but to play the same game, by maintaining active stop-loss orders. Traders should also consider reducing leverage, since sudden spikes can trigger margin calls and wipe out entire accounts. (For the record, of the dozens of interviews I have conducted over the last couple years, I have yet to find one expert that condones the use of leverage greater than 5:1.In my opinion, leverage is still nothing more than a cynical marketing tool), but I digress…)

Ultimately, I think this is just further evidence that day-trading forex is only going to become more difficult. According to a research paper (that I spotlighted in an earlier post), algorithmic trading has already caused a decline in the power of technical analysis. Presumably, this is because computerized trading systems are better than humans at identifying trends and faster at executing trades designed to profit from them. In the end, outsmarting computers is unlikely, since both human traders and their electronic counterparts use the same forms of deductive reasons to spot potential trading opportunities. At the same time, the algorithms are still “stupid.” They are designed by humans and can only consider the variables that have been inputted them, which are inherently technical in nature. To beat them, you merely have to beat their human designers. In practice, this probably means designing more creative strategies based on more complex analytical tools and/or considering fundamental factors in addition to technical ones.

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


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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G7 Leads Shift in Forex Reserves


As you can see from the chart below, the world’s foreign exchange reserves (held by central banks) have undergone a veritable explosion over the last decade. While emerging markets (especially China!) have accounted for the majority of this growth, there are indications that this could soon change. China’s reserve accumulation is set to slow, while advanced economies’ reserves are set to increase.


In the past, central banks from advanced economies have accumulated reserves only sparingly, and in fact, much of this growth can be claimed by Japan. This is no mystery. While held by emerging economy central banks, most of the reserves are denominated in advanced economy currencies. This has ensured a plentiful supply of cheap capital, to support both economic expansion and perennial current account deficits (namely in the US!). In addition, advanced economy central bankers tend to hew towards economic orthodoxy, which precludes them from intervening in forex markets, and obviates the need to accumulate forex reserves. Emerging economies, on the other hand, depend principally on exports to drive growth. As a result, many are driven towards holding down their currencies in order to maintain competitiveness. China has taken this to an extreme, by exercising rigid control over the value of the Yuan, and necessitating the accumulation of $3 trillion in foreign exchange reserves.

This trend accelerated in 2010 with the inception of the so-called currency wars (which have not yet abated). Competing primarily with each other, emerging economies bought vast sums of foreign currency in order to promote economic recovery. Many countries from South America and Asia which don’t normally intervene were also drawn in. The result was a tremendous accumulation of foreign exchange reserves, which is reflected in the chart above.

There is already evidence that this phenomenon is starting to reverse itself. Consider first that advanced economies have participated in the currency wars as well. Japan’s reserves have swelled to more than $1.1 Trillion. Switzerland spent $200 Billion defending the Franc, and South Korea has spent more than $300 Billion over the last five years trying to hold down the Won. The Bank of England (BOE) recently announced plans to rebuild its reserves (the majority of which were redeployed towards gilt purchases). The European Central Bank (ECB) has announced similar plans, and may be joined by the Bank of Canada and US Federal Reserve Bank.

Advanced economies need currency reserves for a couple reasons. First of all, they can no longer rely on monetary easing to reduce their exchange rates because of the inflationary side-effects. Second, the recent coordinated intervention on Japan’s behalf showed that the G7 will move to protect its members when need be. Finally, political forces are compelling advanced economies to slow the outflow of jobs and production, and this requires more competitive exchange rates.

Emerging economies, meanwhile, are starting to recognize that unchecked reserve accumulation is neither sustainable nor desirable. First of all, managing those reserves can be tricky. Intervention is not free, and exchange rate and investment losses must be accounted for somewhere. Second, continued intervention has several detrimental byproducts, namely inflation and the handicapping of domestic industry. Finally, emerging economy currency appreciation is inevitable. Constant intervention merely forestalls the inevitable and invites unending speculation and inflows of hot-money.

There are a few of ways that currency investors can position themselves for this change. As emerging market economies stop the accumulation of (or worse, sell off) their reserves, a major source of demand for advanced economy currency will be curtailed. This will accelerate the broad-based appreciation of emerging market currencies against their advanced economy counterparts. At the same time, I’m not sure how much reshuffling we will say in the composition of reserves. The euro is plagued by existential uncertainty, while the yen and pound have serious fiscal problems. In the short-term, the Chinese Yuan is prevented by several factors from becoming a legitimate reserve currency, namely that it is too difficult to obtain. (As soon as this changes, you can bet that emerging economy central banks will begin accumulating it. After all, they are competing with China – not with the US). The dollar is certainly also an “ugly” currency, but given the size of the US economy, the depth of its capital markets, and the liquidity with which the dollar can be traded, it will remain the go-to choice for the immediate future.

In the short-term, traders that wish to short advanced economy currencies (namely the Japanese yen) can do so in the secure knowledge that they are backstopped by the G7 central banks. It’s like you have an automatic put option that limits downside losses. If the Yen falls, you win! If the yen rises, the BOJ & G7 should step in, and at least you won’t lose!

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The Euro (Still) has a Greek Problem


Since the beginning of May, the euro has fallen by a whopping 7% against the dollar on the basis of renewed fiscal uncertainty in the peripheral eurozone. The optimists would have you believe that the markets will soon forget about the so-called sovereign debt crisis and just as quickly return their focus to monetary policy and other euro drivers. Personally, I think investors to follow such a course, as forex markets must eventually reckon with the seriousness of the eurozone’s fiscal troubles.

First, I want to at least acknowledge the primary sources of euro support. Namely, the European Central Bank (ECB) recently became the first “G4″ central bank to raise its benchmark interest rate; at 1.25%, it is now the highest among major currencies, save only the Australian dollar. Moreover, there is reason to believe that the ECB will hike further over the coming six – twelve months. First of all, eurozone price inflation continues to rise, and the ECB is notoriously hawkish when it comes to ensuring price stability. Second, Q1 GDP growth for the eurozone was a solid .8%, thanks to especially strong performances from France and Germany. While the ECB will likely follow the lead of the Bank of England and wait until Q2 data is released before making a decision, the strong Q1 performance is nonetheless an indication that the eurozone can withstand further rate hikes. Finally, Mario Draghi, who has been confirmed to replace Jean-Claude Trichet in June as head of the ECB, will need to effect an immediate rate hike if he is to establish credibility with the markets.

As I wrote in my last euro update (“Time to Short the Euro“), however, such a modest ECB interest rate – regardless of how it compares to other G4 rates – should hardly be enough to compensate yield-seekers for the risks associated with holding the euro for an extended period of time. Of course, the primary risk I am talking about is the possibility first of a full-fledged sovereign debt crisis, and secondarily of a eurozone banking crisis.

At this point, it is painfully obvious to everyone except for EU officials that the status quo cannot continue. Bailout funds cannot be expanded and rolled over indefinitely, especially since 3 countries (Greece, Ireland, and Portugal) are now involved. Greece, which is certainly the most pressing case, faces skyrocketing interest rates and declining interest from creditors, even as its budget deficit and national debt rise and its economy shrinks. Under these conditions, there is no way that it can re-enter private bond markets in 2012 (as was originally expected), if at all.

Thus, the only question is, what will happen instead? If Greece were to leave the eurozone, it could inflate away its debt, devalue its currency, and decrease interest rates. Regardless of its merit, this possibility has been vehemently dismissed because of concerns that it would lead to the implosion of the euro, and it seems very unlikely. What if Greece were to restructure its debt, by demanding concessions from bondholders? Based on the bond covenants, it apparently has wide latitude to do so, and might not even face legal repercussions. This possibility is also opposed by the ECB and EU officials because it would force banks to take massive [see chart below] write-downs on their debt holdings.

Greece could similarly elect to “re-profile”- basically lengthening the bond maturities (no “haircut” on interest and principal), ostensibly to give it more time to retool economically and fiscally. While this is a popular option, it probably would only succeed in forestalling the inevitable. Finally, the EU (with help from the IMF) could continue to loan money to Greece, in exchange for more additional austerity measures and collateralized by sales of state assets. Alas, this would be met with stiff political resistance from Greece. Not to mention that the recent indictment of Dominique Strauss-Khan – head of the IMF- on rape charges has jeopardized what has been the highest-profile advocate for continued support of Greece.

It seems inevitable that Greece will default on all or part of its debt. That’s not to say that this would cause its economy to collapse, nor that it would precipitate the end of the euro. In fact, recent history is full of cases of countries that successfully declared bankruptcy and emerged several years later unscathed. In this way, Greece could probably eliminate half of its debt, and significantly ease the burden that it poses.

Of course, this would not only set a dangerous precedent for Ireland, Portugal (and perhaps even Spain and Italy), but it would also reverberate throughout Europe’s banking sector, and would probably necessitate multiple bailouts. But what’s the alternative? Dragging out the crisis with secret meanings and feckless proposals will only add to the uncertainty. If Greece and the rest of the eurozone can come to grips with its collective fiscal problem, it will certainly cause chaos in the short-term and a further decline in the euro. By removing uncertainty, however, it will buttress the euro over the long-term and allow it to remain in existence.

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Are Forex Markets Underpricing Volatility?


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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