Global Investing

Less yen for carry this time

The Bank of Japan unleashed its full firepower this week, pushing the yen to 3-1/2 year lows of 97 per dollar.  Year-to-date, the currency is down 11 percent to the dollar. But those hoping for a return to the carry trade boom of yesteryear may wait in vain.

The weaker yen of pre-crisis years was a strong plus for emerging assets, especially for high-yield currencies. Japanese savers chased rising overseas currencies by buying high-yield foreign bonds and as foreigners sold used cheap yen funding for interest rate carry trades. But there’s been little sign of a repeat of that behaviour as the yen has fallen sharply again recently .

Most emerging currencies are flatlining this year and some such as the Korean won and Taiwan dollar are deep in the red. The first reason is dollar strength of course, but there are other issues. Take equities — clearly some cash at the margins is rotating out to Japan, where equity mutual funds have received $14 billion over the past 16 weeks.  While the Nikkei is up 21 percent, Asian indices are broadly flat. In South Korea whose auto firms such as Hyundai and Kia compete with Japan’s Toyota and Honda, shares are bleeding foreign cash. The exodus has helped push the won down 5 percent to the dollar in 2013.

Second, the much-vaunted outflows from Japan have not yet lived up to expectations.  JPMorgan tracks Japanese investment trusts with $67 billion in assets but says only $2.3 billion have flowed to emerging bonds this year, all of it in January and February.

But most crucially,  emerging markets and their currencies are just not as attractive as they were back in 2004-2007 — the heyday of the carry trade.

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:

The Big Five: themes for the week ahead

Five things to think about this week:

HOLDING UP — FOR NOW 
- A good run in equities has so far been helped rather than hindered by U.S. company results. Some are questioning how long the upward momentum can be sustained given cost-cutting rather than improved revenue streams flattered profit margins. The European earnings season, which cranks up a gear this week, and the release of U.S. Q2 GDP data could be potential triggers for a pullback, but the sensitivity to bad news may depend on how much money is chasing the latest push higher. 
    

EARNINGS 
- European earnings flooding out in the coming weeks may paint a less rosy picture of the banking sector than seen on the other side of the Atlantic. While investment and trading activities should be supportive, bad loan provisions will be particularly closely scrutinised, as will the central and eastern Europe exposure of the likes of Erste. The supply/demand outlook for key commodities plans will also be in the limelight given the battery of oil and chemical firms reporting in Europe and the U.S. 

CORRELATIONS 
- There are signs of some breakdown in the lockstep moves that financial markets had become accustomed to seeing in FX/stocks or stocks/bonds. Calyon research shows correlation between the bank’s proprietary risk aversion barometer and exchange rates has been less robust in the past month. While this correlation nevertheless remains stronger than that between FX and interest rate differentials, the markets’ thoughts are turning to new linkages that might prove better trading guides.