Recent weeks have witnessed an interesting split between countries that are raising interest rates to fend off runs on their currencies, and those cutting rates to spur on growth — check out my colleague Carolyn Cohn’s recent piece on this topic (http://tinyurl.com/4x58ny6) .The frontier economies of Africa fall into the first category — Kenya this week jacked up rates by an unprecedented 550 basis points to ward off a currency collapse, while Uganda’s benchmark rate was increased by 300 bps.
Emerging central banks that sold billions of dollars over the summer in defence of their currencies might soon be forced to do the opposite. Japan’s massive currency intervention on Monday knocked the yen substantially lower not only versus the dollar but also against other Asian currencies. The action is unlikely to sit well with other central banks struggling to boost economic growth and raises the prospect of a fresh round of tit-for-tat currency depreciations. Already on Monday, central banks from South Korea and Singapore were suspected of wading into currency markets to buy dollars and push down their currencies which have recovered strongly from September’s selloff. The won for instance is up 6.9 percent in October against the dollar — its biggest monthly gain since April 2009. The Singapore dollar is up 4.5 percent, the result of a huge improvement in risk appetite.
Holding your breath for instant and comprehensive European Union policies solutions has never been terribly wise. And, as the past three months of summit-ology around the euro sovereign debt crisis attests, you’d be just a little blue in the face waiting for the ‘big bazooka’. And, no doubt, there will still be elements of this latest plan knocking around a year or more from now. Yet, the history of euro decision making also shows that Europe tends to deliver some sort of solution eventually and it typically has the firepower if not the automatic will to prevent systemic collapse.
And here’s where most global investors stand following the “framework” euro stabilisation agreement reached late on Wednesday. It had the basic ingredients, even if the precise recipe still needs to be nailed down. The headline, box-ticking numbers — a 50% Greek debt writedown, agreement to leverage the euro rescue fund to more than a trillion euros and provisions for bank recapitalisation of more than 100 billion euros — were broadly what was called for, if not the “shock and awe” some demanded. Financial markets, who had fretted about the “tail risk” of a dysfunctional euro zone meltdown by yearend, have breathed a sigh of relief and equity and risk markets rose on Thursday. European bank stocks gained almost 6%, world equity indices and euro climbed to their highest in almost two months in an audible “Phew!”.
The withering complexity of a four-year-old global financial crisis — in the euro zone, United States or increasingly in China and across the faster-growing developing world — is now stretching the minds and patience of even the most clued-in experts and commentators. Unsurprisingly, the average householder is perplexed, increasingly anxious and keen on a simpler narrative they can rally around or rail against. It’s fast becoming a fertile environment for half-baked conspiracy theories, apocalypse preaching and no little political opportunism. And, as ever, a tempting electoral ploy is to convince the public there’s some magic national solution to problems way beyond borders.
Greece is in the danger zone. Even as the country's finance minister sought to reassure his euro zone counterparts at a meeting in Poland, Greek credit default swaps were pricing in a more than 90 percent chance of default, according to Reuters calculations of Markit data. Economists in a Reuters poll see a 65 percent chance of that happening, probably within a year.
A fresh twist in Hungary's Swiss franc debt saga. The ruling party, Fidesz, is proposing to offer mortgage holders the opportunity to repay their franc-denominated loans in one fell swoop at an exchange rate to be fixed well below the market rate. This is a deviation from the existing plan, agreed in June, which allows households to repay mortgage installments at a fixed rate of 180 forints per Swiss franc (well below the current 230 rate). Households would repay the difference, with interest, after 2015.
Food and electricity bills are high. The cost of filling up at the petrol station isn’t coming down much either. The U.S. economy is in trouble and suddenly the job isn’t as secure as it seemed. Maybe that designer handbag and new car aren’t such good ideas after all.
Poor Russia. After spending six months as the world’s best performing emerging market, the Moscow bourse has been the big loser of this month’s rout — year-to-date returns of over 10 percent until mid-July have since dissolved in a sea of red, with a plunge of over 20 percent since the start of August. As oil prices fell and the outlook for U.S. and European growth darkened, overweight positions in Russia halved versus July, a survey by Bank of America/Merrill Lynch showed this week.
The debt crises in the euro zone and United States are claiming some innocent bystanders. Investors fleeing for the safety of the Swiss franc have ratcheted up pressure on Hungary, where thousands of households have watched with horror as the franc surges to successive record highs against their own forint currency. In the boom years before 2008, mortgages and car loans in Swiss francs seemed like a good idea –after all the forint was strong and Swiss interest rates, unlike those in Hungary, were low. But the forint then was worth 155-160 per franc. Now it is at a record low 260 — and falling — making it increasingly painful to keep up repayments. Swiss franc debt exposure amounts to almost a fifth of Hungary’s GDP. And that is before counting loans taken out by companies and municipalities.
Which bond would you rather buy — one issued by a country with an unpredictable leader but huge oil reserves, or one with a dictatorial president as well as empty coffers? The answer should be a no brainer. Not so. The countries are Venezuela and Belarus, and a basic comparison of their debt profiles shows how strangely risk can be priced in emerging markets.