Global Investing

Fed re-ignites currency war (or currency skirmish)

The currency war is back.

Since last week when the Fed started its third round of money-printing (QE3), policymakers in emerging markets have been busily talking down their own currencies or acting to curb their rise. These efforts may gather pace now that Japan has also increased its asset-buying programme, with expectations that the extra liquidity unleashed by developed central banks will eventually find its way into the developing world.

The alarm over rising currencies was reflected in an unusual verbal intervention this week by the Czech central bank, with governor Miroslav Singer hinting at  more policy loosening ahead, possibly with the help of unconventional policy tools. Prague is not generally known for currency interventions — analysts at Societe Generale point out its last direct interventions were conducted as far back as 2001-2002.  Even verbal intervention is quite rate — it last resorted to this on a concerted basis in 2009, SoGen notes. Singer’s words had a strong impact — the Czech crown fell almost 1 percent against the euro.

The stakes are high — the Czech economy is a small, open one, heavily reliant on exports which make up 75 percent of its GDP. But Singer is certainly not alone in his efforts to tamp down his currency. Turkey’s 100 basis point cut to its overnight lending rate on Tuesday (and hints of more to come) was essentially a currency-weakening move. And Poland has hinted at entering its own bond market in case of “market turmoil”

What of Latin America and Asia, the main battlegrounds for currency wars of the past? As may be expected, Brazil has been the most vocal in its criticism of the Fed — its finance minister Guido Mantega (who first came up with the currency wars phrase) has threatened more measures to keep a “devalued real” .  The central bank has already sold billions of dollars worth of reverse currency swaps to weaken the real this week. Neighbouring Peru on Tuesday waded into currency markets to weaken the sol, saying the central bank was trying to get in ahead of an expected wave of inflows. In Asia, central banks from the Philippines and Taiwan have been spotted buying dollars to weaken their currencies while Korea will almost certainly cut interest rate to curb its won which is near  six-month highs to the dollar.

All that sounds pretty familiar.  But are emerging economies really that worried?  And should they be?

Carry currencies to tempt central banks

Central bankers as carry traders? Why not.

As we wrote here yesterday, FX reserves at global central banks may be starting to rise again. That’s a consequence of a pick up in portfolio investment flows in recent weeks and is likely to continue after the U.S. Fed’s announcement of its QE3 money-printing programme.

According to analysts at ING, the Fed’s decision to restart its printing presses will first of all increase liquidity (some of which will find its way into central bank coffers). Second, it also tends to depress volatility and lower volatility encourages the carry trade. Over the next 12 months these  two themes will combine as global reserve managers twin their efforts to keep their money safe and still try to make a return, ING predicts, dubbing it a positive carry story.

The first problem is that yields are abysmal on traditional reserve currencies. That means any reserve managers keen to boost returns will try to diversify from the  dollar, euro, sterling and yen that constitute 90 percent of global reserves. Back in the spring of 2009 when the Fed scaled up QE1, its move depressed the dollar and drove reserve managers towards the euro, which was the most liquid alternative at the time. ING writes:

Emerging market FX reserves again on rise

One of the big stories of the past decade, that of staggering reserve accummulation by emerging market central banks, appeared to have ground to a halt as global trade and economic growth slumped. But according to Bank of America/Merrill Lynch, reserves are  starting to grow again for the first time since mid-2011.

The bank calculates that reserve accumulation by the top-50 emerging central banks should top $108 billion in September after strong inflows of around $13 billion in each of the first  two weeks. Look at the graphic below.

 

So what is the source of these inflows? As BoA/ML points out global trade balances are at their cyclical lows and that is reflected in the dwindling current account surpluses in the developing world. But as risk sentiment has improved in the past six weeks,  there has been a pick up in fixed income and equity investment flows to emerging markets, compared to the developed world.

No BRIC without China

Jim O’ Neill, creator of the BRIC investment concept, has been exasperated by repeated calls in the past to exclude one or another country from the quartet, based on either economic growth rates, equity performance or market structure. In the early years, Brazil’s eligibility for BRIC was often questioned due to its anaemic growth; then it was the turn of oil-dependent Russia. Over the past couple of years many turned their sights on India due to its reform stupor. They have suggested removing it and including Indonesia in its place.

All these detractors should focus on China.

China’s validity in BRIC has never been questioned. Aside from the fact that BRI does not really have a ring, that’s not surprising. China’s growth rates plus undoubted political and economic clout on the international stage put  it head and shoulders above the other three. And after all, it is Chinese demand which drives a large part of the Russian and Brazilian economies.

But its equity markets have not performed for years.

This year, Russian and Indian stocks are up around 20 percent in dollar terms while China has gained 9 percent and Brazil 3 percent. In local currency terms however China is among the worst performing emerging markets, down 5 percent. Brazil has risen 9 percent.

Competitive, moi? Turkey jumps up the league

Switzerland tops the World Economic Forum’s competitiveness league for the fourth year running, according to the latest survey out today, while the United States is slipping down the table because of political and economic problems.

But quite a few emerging market countries are jumping up the league.

Charles Robertson at Renaissance Capital highlights Turkey and Nigeria as some of the best performers in the last year, rising 16 and 12 places respectively in the index, which is based on 12 measures, including infrastructure, macro-economic environment, and market size.

Turkey has moved into 43rd place, above Brazil and India. Nigeria has only reached 115th, but it trumps other sub-Saharan African countries like Mozambique and Uganda.

No policy easing this week in Turkey and Chile

More and more emerging central banks have been embarking on the policy easing path in recent weeks. But Chile and Turkey which hold rate-setting meetings this Thursday are not expected to emulate them. Both are expected to hold interest rates steady for now.

In Chile, the interest rate futures market is pricing in that the central bank will keep interest rates steady at 5 percent for the seventh month in a row. Most local analysts surveyed by Reuters share that view. Chile’s economy, like most of its emerging peers is slowing, hit by a potential slowdown in its copper exports to Asia but it is still expected at a solid 4.6 percent in the third quarter. Inflation is running at 2.5 percent, close to the lower end of the central bank’s  percent target band.

Turkey is a bit more tricky. Here too, most analysts surveyed by Reuters expect no change to any of the central bank rates though some expect it to allow banks to hold more of their reserves in gold or hard currency. The Turkish policy rate has in fact become largely irrelevant as the central bank now tightens or loosens policy at will via daily liquidity auctions for banks. And for all its novelty, the policy appears to have worked — Turkey’s monstrous current account deficit has contracted sharply and data  this week showed the June deficit was the smallest since last August. Inflation too is well off its double-digit highs.

Pay votes update… Spring takes a fall?

A few months ago, at the height of the British AGM season, we ran some numbers on shareholder protest votes over executive pay.

It seemed striking at the time that despite all the talk of revolution, the average vote against FTSE 100 companies’ remuneration reports had only edged higher, to 8.2% from 8.0% in 2011.

This week I’ve been catching up on the AGMs which have taken place since May, giving us a decent quorum of 92 companies, and the results are even more startling.

Shadow over Shekel

Israel’s financial markets had a torrid time on Monday as swirling rumours of an imminent air strike on Iran caused investors to flee. The shekel lost 1.4 percent, the Tel Aviv stock exchange fell 1.5 percent and credit default swaps, reflecting the cost of insuring exposure to a credit, surged almost 10 percent.

There has been a modest recovery today as the rumour mills wind down. But analysts reckon more weakness lies ahead for the shekel which is not far off three-year lows.  Political risks aside, the central bank has been cutting interest rates and is widely expected to take interest rates, currently at 2.25 percent, down to 1.75 percent by year-end. Societe Generale analysts are among the many recommending short shekel positions against the dollar. They say:

Expect the dovish stance of the Bank of Israel to remain well entrenched for now.

Put down and Fed up

Given almost biblical gloom about the world economy at the moment, you really have to do a double take looking at Wall Street’s so-called “Fear Index”. The ViX , which is essentially the cost of options on S&P500 equities, acts as a geiger counter for both U.S. and global financial markets.  Measuring implied volatility in the market, the index surges when the demand for options protection against sharp moves in stock prices is high and falls back when investors are sufficiently comfortable with prevailing trends to feel little need to hedge portfolios. In practice — at least over the past 10 years — high volatility typically means sharp market falls and so the ViX goes up when the market is falling and vice versa. And because it’s used in risk models the world over as a proxy for global financial risk, a rising ViX tends to shoo investors away from risky assets while a falling ViX pulls them in — feeding the metronomic risk on/risk off behaviour in world markets and, arguably, exaggerating dangerously pro-cyclical trading and investment strategies.

Well, the “Fear Index” last night hit its lowest level since the global credit crisis erupted five-years ago to the month.  Can that picture of an anxiety-free investment world really be accurate? It’s easy to dismiss it and blame a thousand “technical factors” for its recent precipitous decline.  On the other hand,  it’s also easy to forget the performance of the underlying market has been remarkable too. Year-to-date gains on Wall St this year have been the second best since 1998. And while the U.S. and world economies hit another rough patch over the second quarter, the incoming U.S. economic data is far from universally poor and many economists see activity stabilising again.

But is all that enough for the lowest level of “fear” since the fateful August of 2007? The answer is likely rooted in another sort of “put” outside the options market — the policy “put”, essentially the implied insurance the Fed has offered investors by saying it will act again to print money and buy bonds in a third round of quantitative easing (QE3) if the economy or financial market conditions deteriorate sharply again. Reflecting this “best of both worlds” thinking, the latest monthly survey of fund managers by Bank of America Merrill Lynch says a net 15% more respondents expect the world economy to improve by the end of the year than those who expect it to deteriorate but almost 50 percent still believe the Fed will deliver QE3 before 2012 is out.  In other words, things will likely improve gradually in the months ahead and if they don’t the Fed will be there to catch us.

Norwegians piling into Korean bonds

One of the stories of this year has been the stupendous rally on emerging local currency debt, fuelled in part by inflows from institutional investors tired of their zero or negative-return investments in Western debt.  Norway’s sovereign wealth fund said last week for instance that it was dumping some European bonds and spending more of its $600 billion war chest in emerging markets.

Quite a bit of that cash is going to South Korea. Regulators in Seoul recently reported a hefty rise in foreigners’ bond holdings (see here for the Reuters story) and  Societe Generale has a note out dissecting the data, which shows that total foreign holdings of Korean bonds are now worth around $79 billion — back at levels seen last July.  Norwegians emerged as the biggest buyers last month,  picking up bonds worth 1.5 trillion won ($1.3 billion) , almost double what they purchased in the entire first half of 2012. Norway’s holdings of Korean Treasuries now total 2.29 trillion won, up from just 190 billion won at the end of 2011.

The growing interest from overseas investors would seem logical — South Korea stands on the cusp between emerging and developed markets, with sound policies, a current account surplus and huge currency reserves. And Socgen analyst Wee-Khoon Chong says the Norwegian crown’s recent strength against other currencies makes such overseas trades more attractive (the crown is up 6 percent versus the euro this year and has gained 5.3 percent to the Korean won). “Norwegians are the newbies into the KTB market,” Chong says. “They are probably recycling their FX reserves.”