Tag Archive | "Risk Aversion"

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AUDUSD, USDCAD Dip On Commodity Declines

Commodity currency declines were visible on the first trading of the new week, mostly propelled by dips in the correlated commodities markets.  With risk aversion spreading on the heels that the current Greek bailout talks have stalled – mostly on the part of Greek leaders unable to come to a formidable agreement – major commodities like gold and oil are being sold off.  Gold prices have dipped to $1,724 – down almost 1% on the day.  Crude oil futures haven’t done that much better – falling by 1% to $96.87.

The declines are widely speculated as a normal correction.  In particular, gold was due for a mild correction as the commodity rallied wholeheartedly by 5.5% since the Federal Reserve commitment for looser monetary policy.  The selloff has some technicians eyeing the next round of support which is expected to loom over the $1,700 figure in the short term.

Nonetheless, the commodity declines are forcing both the Australian and Canadian dollars lower against the greenback.  At midday in New York, the Australian dollar is trading at 1.0733, down by 0.16% – and falling from key resistance at the 1.0800 short term technical barrier.  Canadian dollar losses have been approximately on par with the Aussie, falling by 0.16% against the US dollar.  The loonie currently trades at an exchange rate of 0.9960.

Tonight’s central bank decision by the RBA is adding to the overall sell sentiment – with many traders in the market expecting a rate cut of 25 basis points.  The sentiment has been heightened – increasing the probability of a cut a bit over the 50% mark – following worse than anticipated retail sales figures in the overnight.

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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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Pound Vs. Euro: Tie Game for Now?

While I’m fondest of analyzing all currencies relative to the Dollar (after all, it’s what I’m most familiar with and is involved in almost half of all forex trades), sometimes its interesting to look at cross rates.

Take the Pound/Euro, for example, arguably one of the most important crosses, and one of a handful that often moves independently of the Dollar. If you chart the performance of this pair over the last two years, however, you can see the distinct lack of volatility. It has fluctuated around an axis of 1.15 GBP/EUR, never straying more than 5% in either direction. In fact, it’s sitting right at this level as I compose this post.

Yesterday, I read some commentary by Boris Schlossberg (whom I interviewed in 2010), Director of Currency Research at GFT. In the title (“Euro and Pound Go Their Separate Ways”), he seemed to suggest that a big move was imminent. Aside from noting that both currencies stand at crossroads, he declined to offer more concrete guidance on the direction of the potential breakout.

At the moment, the markets are gripped by risk aversion, caused by the Mid East political turmoil and the Japanese natural disasters. Once these events run their course and the accompanying market tension subsides, investors will need something else to latch on to. Perhaps the Bank of England (BoE) and European Central Bank (ECB) can fulfill this function, since both are on the verge of hiking their respective benchmark interest rates . Absent any other developments, the timing and speed of such hikes will probably dictate not only how these currencies perform against each other, but also how they perform against the Dollar.

Despite the numerous indications that both have given to the contrary, I don’t think either Central Bank is in a hurry to raise interest rates. Economic growth remains poor, unemployment is high, and inflation is still moderate. Neither is yet at the stage where it can unwind the monetary easing that it put in place at the height of the financial crisis. Moreover, both are wary about the potential impact of rate hikes on their respective currencies (a concern that I am ironically fomenting with this post).

It looks like the BoE will be the first to act. Combined with high energy prices, the bank’s easy monetary policy is putting extraordinary pressure on prices, and it now appears that inflation could reach 5% in 2011. In addition, the BoE voted 6-3 at its last meeting in favor of tightening, which means that a hike probably isn’t too far off. On the other hand, the ECB is talking tough, but it still doesn’t have much of an impetus to act. Inflation is moderate, and besides, the region’s banks remain too dependent on ECB cash for it to serious contemplate being aggressive.

Either way, the interest rate differential probably won’t be great enough to encourage any short-term speculation between the two currencies. In addition, I think investors will continue to look to the Yen and the Dollar for guidance, and we won’t see any significant movement in either direction. [The chart below is based on benchmark lending rates and isn’t necessarily applicable for retail forex trading].

This would create two opportunities for investors: Options traders should consider a long straddle, which involves selling a put and call at the same strike price (perhaps 1.15), pocketing the premiums, and praying that the rate doesn’t fluctuate much (since they would be exposed to unlimited risk). In the future, carry traders can also profit from the lack of volatility through a carry trading strategy, perhaps amplified by a little leverage. Be careful, however. Since interest rate differentials are currently so small (The current LIBOR rate disparity is a mere .05%!) and probably won’t widen to more than 1% over the next twelve months, any profits from interest could easily be wiped out by even the smallest adverse exchange rate movements.

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Emerging Markets (Asia) Bow to Inflationary Pressures: Currency Appreciation will Follow

I ended my previous post on the subject by noting that emerging market Central Banks were at a crossroads. Either they would raise interest rates and accept currency appreciation, or they would risk hyperinflation and economic instability. While the jury is still out on a handful of cases, it looks like most of the emerging market countries in Asia have chosen the former.

In February, the Bank of Indonesia raised its benchmark interest rate to 6.75%, from a record low of 6.5%. The People’s Bank of China (PBOC) has now hiked rates three times in the current tightening cycle. After a hike in January, the Bank of Korea inscrutably decided to hold rates in February, but signaled that another rate hike in March is likely. The Central Bank of The Philippines similarly indicated that it is ready to embark on a program of tightening. The same goes for the Reserve Bank of India (RBI). So far the main holdout is the Bank of Thailand, whose interest rates are still the lowest in Asia (ex-Japan) and remains reluctant to raise them too quickly.

Towards the end of January and the beginning of February, most Asian EM currencies sputtered in their appreciation. While there were a number of reasons for this (notably a pickup in risk aversion), Central Banks rejoiced in their perceived victory of foreign currency speculators. Unfortunately, there were a few downsides to this. First of all, capital outflow produced marked declines in Asian stock and bond markets, raising borrowing rates for everyone making it more difficult for domestic firms to raise capital. Meanwhile, inflation continued to rise, with no signs of slowing.

Thus, as I remarked the last time around, it was inevitable that (Asian) Central Banks would inevitably come to their senses. First of all, they realized that there was no free lunch, and that controlling their currencies would disable them from using traditional monetary policy tools to fight inflation. Second, while they could do without currency appreciation, they realized that this would have to be tolerated if they wanted to continue attracting foreign investment. (That’s because, as the Financial Times pointed out, currency appreciation probably accounts for half of all emerging market investment returns).

Third, it is inevitable that emerging market currencies will continue to rise over the long-term, in line with productivity gains. According to the Balassa-Samuelson effect, “countries with above average real income growth should have rising price levels, relative to other economies, and strengthening real exchange rates.” Based on this notion, emerging market currencies are forecast to rise by an average of 1.7% per year for the next 10 years.

Finally, in accordance with the unofficial rules of the currency war, emerging market countries are competing not with industrialized countries, but with each other. If all of their currencies rise in unison, export competitiveness is unaffected, inflation is tamed, and foreign capital remains abundant. It would seem to be a win/win/win.

In fact, it seems like investors are less interested in distinguishing between the different emerging market currencies of Asia, since at this point, all of them offer similar currency appreciation (over the last six months, returns have converged) and similar inflation-adjusted carry. Thus, it stands to reason that as Asian Central Banks continue to tighten interest rates, their currencies will continue to rise together.

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Untangling the Puzzle of Risk Appetite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Brazilian Real Supported By Fundamentals, but Obstacles Remain

Despite all of the talk of currency war (a term first introduced by Brazili’s Finance Minister) and volatility in forex markets, the Brazilian Real is on pace to finish 2010 only slightly higher from where it began the year. While fundamentals would seem to support a further rise, Brazil’s government and Central Bank have made it clear that they will do everything in their combined power to prevent such an outcome. In short, the outlook for the Real in 2011 is incredibly uncertain.

There are two (somewhat contradictory) trends that have played a role in driving the Real to its current level. The first is the resurgence of the carry trade, whereby investors shift capital from low-risk, low-yield investments to higher-yield, higher-risk alternatives. With interest rates that are among the highest in the world – and certainly the highest among stable currencies – Brazil has been one of the prime recipients of carry trade funds. Since 2009, when concerns over the credit crisis began to ebb, the Real has risen a whopping 40%!

Moreover, the Central Bank might have no choice but to hike its benchmark Selic rate further over the next couple years. Inflation, at 5.5%, has already breached the Bank’s 4.5% target, and is projected to remain at an elevated level throughout 2011. According to futures prices, investors expect the bank to lift the Selic rate (currently at 10.75%) by 1.5% over the next twelve months, including a 50 basis point hike at its scheduled meeting in January. When you factor in low rates in the rest of the world, this would lift the yield spread between the Brazilian Real and most other comparable currencies to astronomical levels.

Alas, this first trend started to abate in the second half of 2010, due primarily to the EU sovereign debt crisis. Fortunately, the consequent move towards risk aversion hasn’t hurt the Real much. To be sure, Brazil is still an emerging-market economy, and is still perceived as being fraught with risk. However, when you consider that (certain) commodities prices (sugar, cotton) are at record highs and that the Brazilian economy barely dipped during the credit crisis, there are certainly riskier locales to park capital. Besides, many investors have determined that the interest rate premium that they receive from investing in Brazil is more than enough to compensate them for any added risk.

All else being equal, then, the Brazilian Real would probably continue rising at a measured pace in 2011. As I said, however, all else is not equal, since Brazil has pledged to do everything in their power to hold down the Real. According to the WSJ, “Earlier this year Brazil raised the IOF tax on foreign investment in fixed-income securities to 6% from 2% and also raised the tax for guarantees on derivatives investments.” Meanwhile, the Central Bank has intervened regularly in the spot market to purchase Dollars. The Bank’s newly appointed President, Alexandre Tombini, has voiced concerns over the Real’s rise: “We can’t let the economic policies of other countries determine the direction of foreign exchange.” On the day that he testified before the Senate’s Economic Affairs Committee, the Real fell by a substantial margin, suggesting that investors take his warnings seriously.

The Central Bank will also work closely with the new Brazilian administration to combat inflation, in a way that doesn’t cause the Real to appreciate. Rather than raise interest rates – which invites speculative capital inflows – the Bank will probably put pressure on the government to rein in spending and tighten access to credit. Over the long-term, this should allow it to lower rates to more sustainable levels, and prevent an expensive Rea from eroding the competitiveness of its export sector before it is too late.

Over the short-term, however, the immediate focus is to bring down inflation, most likely through rate hikes. That means that the Ministry of Finance will have to resort to more conventional weapons – such as taxes and intervention – to stem the Real’s rise. It managed to hold the Real to a 3% rise in 2010, but it remains to be seen whether it can repeat this feat in 2011.

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Swiss Franc Surges to Record High(s)

In the last two weeks, the Swiss Franc rose to record highs against not one, but two major currencies: the US Dollar and the Euro. The Franc is now entrenched well above parity against the former, and is closing in on the magical level of 1:1 against the latter. With market uncertainty projected to run well into 2011, continued strength in the Franc is all but assured.

usd CHF 2 Year Chart

The Franc’s rise is due entirely to its being perceived as a safe haven currency. Its debt levels are comparable to other industrialized countries, its economy is in mediocre shape, and interest rates are the lowest in the entire world (the overnight lending rate is a paltry .1%). Some analysts have cited the “strong Swiss economic outlook” and “the health of Swiss public finances” as two factors buttressing its strength, but make not mistake: if not for the tide of risk aversion sweeping through the world’s financial markets, the Franc would hardly be attracting any attention.

As I have reported recently, the Dollar and the Yen have also benefited from the spike of risk aversion caused by renewed concerns over the fiscal health of the EU and the prospect of conflict in Korea. Perhaps owning to nothing more than proximity, the Franc has been the primary beneficiary from EU sovereign debt crisis. “It appears that smart money investors are pre-emptively bailing funds out of the eurozone with Switzerland providing a safe port to ride out the eurozone sovereign debt storm that appears to loom on the horizon,” summarized one analyst.

Unfortunately, it looks like the situation in the EU can only become serious. Despite a collective move towards fiscal austerity, all of the problem countries are still running budget deficits. As a result, members of the EU are set to issue no less than €500 Billion of new debt in 2011. To make matters worse, “The onslaught of credit warnings and downgrades of sovereign ratings over the past few days added to worries that borrowing costs in many euro zone nations could rise further.” This could trigger a self-fulfilling descent towards default and further buoy the Franc.

EUR CHF 2 Year Chart
As far as I can tell, the notion that, “Despite the Swiss franc’s recent sharp gains, we still believe there is plenty of room for further upside ahead,” seems to encapsulate current market sentiment. According to the most recent Commitment of Traders Report, investors continue to increase their long positions in the Franc. According to Bloomberg News, “Options traders are more bullish on the franc for the next three months than any major currency except the yen.” Meanwhile, a sample of analysts’ forecasts suggests that the Franc could appreciate another 5% over the next six months.

At this point, the main variable the Swiss National Bank (SNB), which could resume intervention on behalf of the Franc. After spending close to €200 Billion to depress the Franc, the SNB accepted the futility of its efforts and formally renounced intervention in June. However, Swiss National Bank President Philipp Hildebrand recently referred to the Franc’s rise as a “burden,” and warned that the SNB “would take the measures necessary to ensure price stability” in the event of  “renewed financial market tensions.”

As to whether intervention is likely, analysts remain divided. “The timing [for intervention] would certainly be perfect, with liquidity very thin….pre-holiday markets are ideal for springing a surprise,” said one strategist. According to Morgan Stanley, however, the SNB is “unlikely to intervene in the near term to stem the rise in the franc. The previous intervention earlier this year has left a huge overhang of liquidity in the economy and the Swiss National Bank doesn’t want to further boost the money supply.” In addition, the SNB experienced losses of €22 Billion on its forex reserves in the first nine months of this year, and will be reluctant to incur further losses by resuming intervention.

In short, aside from this lone point of uncertainty, all factors point to continued upside.

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Japanese Yen Down on Risk Aversion

It seems the gods of the forex market read my previous post on the Japanese Yen, in which I puzzled over the currency’s appreciation in the face of contradictory economic and financial factors. Since then, the Yen’s 6-month, 15% appreciation (against the US Dollar) has arrested. It has retreated from the brink of record highs, and undergone the most significant correction since March of this year. Have investors come to their senses, or what?!

You certainly can’t give the Bank of Japan (BOJ) any credit. Aside from its single-day $25 Billion intervention in September, it hasn’t entered the forex markets. In fact, it has already repaid the funds lent to it by the Ministry of Finance, which suggests that it doesn’t have any intention to replicate its earlier intervention in the immediate future, regardless of where the Yen moves.

Perhaps the BOJ foresaw the current correction in the Yen, which was probably inevitable in some ways. After all, Japanese interest rates – while gradually rising – still remain at levels that are unattractive to investors. While US short-term rates are low, long-term rates are more than 1.5% higher than their Japanese counterparts. When you factor in that Japan’s fiscal condition is worse than the US, there is really very little reason, in this aspect, to prefer Japan. As one analyst summarized, “The whole interest-rate differential argument is turning out to be dollar supportive, at least in the near term.”

The same is true for risk-averse capital. For reasons of liquidity and psychology, the Japanese Yen will continue to be a safe-haven destination in times of distress. Still, it’s hardly superior to the Dollar, in this sense. Inflation is slowly emerging (or at least, the risk of deflation is slowly abating) in Japan, and it could conceivably reach 1% this year if the Bank of Japan has its way. Its proposed 35 trillion yen ($419 billion) of asset purchases dwarfs the comparable Federal Reserve Bank’s QE2 program (in relative terms) and contradicts the notion that the Yen is the best store of value.

Japan Economic Structure - Dependence on Exports
Finally, the Japanese economy remains weak, and vulnerable to a double-dip recession. On the one hand, “Japan’s economy expanded at an annual 4.5 percent rate in the three months ended Sept. 30.” On the other hand, its economy remains heavily reliant on exports (see chart above, courtesy of Bloomberg News) to drive growth, which is complicated by the expensive Yen and concerns over a drop-off in demand from China and the rest of the world. In fact, “Exports rose 7.8 percent in October, the slowest pace this year, while industrial production fell for a fifth month and the unemployment rate climbed to 5.1 percent.” In addition, the closely watched Tankan survey registered a drop in September, “the first fall in seven quarters.” While Japanese companies are still net optimistic, analysts expect that this to change in the beginning of 2011.

For the rest of the year, how the Yen performs will depend largely on investor risk-appetite. If risk aversion predominates, then the Yen should hold its value. In addition, it’s worth pointing out that even as the Yen has fallen against the Dollar, it has appreciated against the Euro, and remained flat against a handful of other currencies. Against the US Dollar, however, I still don’t see any reason for why the Yen should trade below 85, and I expect the correction will continue to unfold.

JPY comparison chart 2010

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Risk Aversion (Still) Positive for USD

As one strategist recently put it, we seem to be witnessing Deja Vu in the forex markets. The US Dollar in general, and the USD/EUR currency pair in particular, are behaving exactly the same as one year ago: “The greenback rose back then…on a combination of strong U.S. November jobs numbers…and the triple downgrades of Greece later in the month by Fitch, S&P and Moodys.” This time around, a similar combination of US optimism and EU pessimism are once again buoying the Dollar.

Euro Dollar Chart 2009-2010
It all started about a month ago, when the EU sovereign debt crisis flared up again in the EU. Initially, investors were focused on the fiscal plight of Ireland, but quickly became nervous about the possibility that the crisis would spread to Portugal and even Spain, which would tax the finances/ability of the EU and put extreme pressure on the European Monetary Union (EMU). With this in mind, investors have fled the Euro, sending it down more than 7% – from peak to trough – against the Dollar.

The skirmish between North and South Korea further added to the climate of heightened risk, and reinforced the position of the Dollar as the world’s safest currency, ahead of even the Swiss Franc and Japanese Yen: “Recent events just reinforce the underlying message that during times of turmoil, almost no matter what the source, the U.S. dollar is seen as a safe harbor for investors.” Basically, there is still nothing that can compare to US Treasury securities in terms of liquidity and security. In fact, demand for Dollars has become so acute in recent weeks that some analysts are already bracing for the (still-distant) possibility of another Dollar shortage, like the one that plagued the markets following the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008. In short, “The strong dollar thirst linked to dollar-funding needs is, as usual, supporting the dollar.”

Meanwhile, the markets are becoming less pessimistic about the impact of the Fed’s $600 Billion expansion of its Quantitative Easing Program (QE2) and consequently more optimistic about US growth prospects. Even before the drama in the EU and Korea, investors had already started to adjust their positions. Since mid-October, “Futures traders have slashed bets for a decline in the dollar against the euro, yen, Australian dollar, and Swiss franc, data from the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Assn. show…Strategist forecasts for the dollar to weaken have all but disappeared.”

While the employment picture remains a dim spot, the economy is still growing. In a recent televised interview, Ben Bernanke declared that, “Another recession appeared unlikely.” He also added that QE3 is also a possibility if banks continue to hoard capital, eroding the effectiveness of QE2. The positive reaction of forex markets shows that investors are less concerned about inflation and more focused on whether QE2 will facilitate economic growth. It “absolutely can be dollar-positive if the markets decide that [it is] going to be part of the package that brings about a revival in economic growth,” summarized one analyst.

If the markets continue to bet on (as opposed to against) QE2, and uncertainty persists in the EU, the Dollar will continue to rally and finish off the year in positive territory.

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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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