Global Investing

Fresh skirmishes in global currency war

Amid all the furious G7 money printing of recent years, Brazil was the first to sound the air raid siren in the “international currency war”  back in 2010 and it continues to cry foul over the past week. With its finance ministry issuing fresh warnings last night over hot-money flows being dropped by western economies on its unsuspecting exporters via currency speculation,  Brazil’s central bank then set off its own defensive anti aircraft battery with a surprisingly deep interest rate cut late Wednesday. Having tried everything from taxes on hot foreign inflows to currency market intervention, they are braced for a long war and there’s little sign of the flood of cheap money from the United States, Europe and Japan ending anytime soon. So, if  you can’t beat them, do you simply join them?

The prospect of  a deepening of this currency conflict — essentially beggar-thy-neighbour devaluation policies designed to keep countries’ share of ebbing world growth intact — was a hot topic this week for Societe Generale’s long-standing global markets bear Albert Edwards. Edwards, who represent’s SG’s “Alternative View”, reckons the biggest development in the currency battle this year has been the sharp retreat of Japan’s yen and this could well drag China into the fray if global growth continues to wither later this year. He highlighted the Japan/China standoff with the following graphic of yen and yuan nominal trade-weighted exchange rates.

Edwards goes on to say that this could, in turn, create another explosive FX standoff between China and the United States if Beijing were to consider devaluation — the opposite of what the protectionist U.S. lobby has been screaming for for years.

“We have long stated that if the Chinese economy looks to be hard landing, as we believe it will, the authorities there will actively consider renminbi devaluation, despite the political consequences of such action.”

“Clearly, the US will not respond well if China chooses to devalue. But China might argue that as its reserves are now declining there is clear downward pressure on its currency and that, after all, the US has asked it to allow market forces to have more of an influence!”

Central banks and the next bubble (3)

Expectations are running high ahead of next week’s LTRO 2.0 (expected take-up is somewhat smaller than the first time and the previous estimate though, with Reuters poll predicting banks to grab c492 bln euros).

The ECB’s three-year loan operation, along with the BOJ’s unexpected easing, BoE’s QE and commitment from the Fed to keep rates on hold until at least end-2014 may constitute competitive monetary easing, Goldman Sachs argues.

As the moves to ease have been rolled out, we increasingly encounter the argument that such ‘competitive’ (non-coordinated) monetary expansions by developed market central banks are at best ineffective and at worst a zero-sum game at the global level—and perhaps a precursor of something worse, such as a slide towards protectionism.

Central banks and the next bubble (2)

In the previous bubble blog earlier in the week I wrote that G4 central bank balance sheets are expanding to a whopping 26% of GDP.

In what Nomura’s Bob Janjuah called “Monetary Anarchy”, some analysts worry that central bank liquidity expansion is a timebomb which if/when it explodes would have very negative consequences.

Swiss private bank Lombard Odier, weighing in on the debate, warns that not only has the quality of central bank balance sheets deteriorated, there has been no visible impact on the real economy.

Central banks and the next bubble

Central bank balance sheets are expanding at what some say is an alarming pace. Can this cause the next bubble to form and burst?

JP Morgan estimates G4 (U.S., Japan, euro zone and Britain) balance sheets are now around 24% of GDP combined, with around 11% of GDP comprising bonds held for monetary purposes.

“The recent pace of balance sheet expansion is the fastest since the immediate aftermath of Lehman, largely down to the ECB. The increased BOJ purchases, more QE in the UK, and 200 bln euros upwards of increased ECB lending from this month’s LTRO together point to a further $600bln+ rise in G4 central bank balance sheets this year, to around 26% of GDP.”

Turkey gearing up for rate cuts but not today

Could the Turkish central bank surprise markets again today?

Given its track record, few will dare to place firm bets on the outcome of today’s meeting but the general reckoning for now is that the bank will keep borrowing and lending rates steady and signal no immediate change to its weekly repo rate of 5.75 percent. With year-on-year inflation in the double digits, logic would dictate there is no scope for an easier monetary policy.

But there are reasons to believe the Turkish central bank, whose mindset is essentially dovish, is letting its thoughts stray towards rate cuts. Consider the following:

a) Governor Erdem Basci has already said he does not see the need for further policy tightening  b)The lira has strengthened  9 percent this year against the dollar and is back at levels last seen in early September, thanks to almost one billion dollars in foreign flows to the Turkish stock market and well-subscribed bond issues. And crucially c) Global factors are supportive (developed central banks are continuing to pump liquidity and a bailout  has finally been agreed for Greece) .

Emerging market local bond rally has more legs

Just a month and half into 2012, emerging local currency bonds have already returned 9 percent, one of best performing asset classes. But the rally has further to go, says J.P. Morgan which runs the most widely used emerging debt indices. The bank is now predicting its benchmark local currency debt index, the GBI-EM, to end the year with returns of 16 percent, upping its original expectation for 11.9 percent.

There are several reasons for this bullishnesss. JPM’s latest client survey reveals investors’ positioning is still neutral, meaning there is potential for more gains. Cash inflows to EM local debt have been dwarfed this year by investments into dollar bonds, considered a safer, albeit lower-yielding asset than locally issued bonds. So when (and if) euro zone uncertainties abate, some of this cash is likely to make the switch.

Many emerging countries are still cutting interest rates, which will push down yields on short-dated bonds. Other countries may tolerate some more currency appreciation to dampen inflation, benefiting the currency side of the EM local bond trade. Above all, with all developed central banks intent on quantitative easing (Japan announced a surprise $130 billion worth of extra QE this week), the yield premium offered by emerging markets — the carry — is irresistible. On average the GBI-EM index offers a 4.5 percent yield pick up on U.S. Treasuries, JPM notes:

Interest rates in emerging markets – - harder to cut

Emerging market central banks and economic data are sending a message — interest rates will stay on hold for now.  There are exceptions of course.

Indonesia cut rates on Thursday but the move was unexpected and possibly the last for some time. Brazil has also signalled that rate cuts will continue.  But South Korea and Poland held rates steady this week and made hawkish noises. Peru and Chile will probably do the same.

The culprit that’s spoiling the party is of course inflation. Expectations that slowing growth will wipe out remaining price pressures have largely failed to materialise, leaving policymakers in a bind. Tensions over Iran could drive oil prices higher. Growth seems to be looking up in the United States.

Currency rally drives sizzling returns on emerging local debt

Emerging market bonds denominated in local currencies enjoyed a record January last month with JP Morgan’s GBI-EM Global index returning around 8 percent in dollar terms. Year-to-date, returns are over 9.5 percent.

 

 

This is mainly down to spectacular gains on emerging currencies such as the Mexican peso and Turkish lira which have surged 7-10 percent against the dollar and euro this year.  Analysts say the currency component of this year’s returns has been around 7 percent, meaning any portfolio hedged for currency risk would have garnered returns of just 2.5 percent.

The gains come as good news to investors licking their wounds after the index ended 2011 in negative territory. A mid-year rout on emerging markets pushed up local bond yields, often by hundreds of basis points and sent many currencies to multi-year lows.

Buy more yen… to increase reserve returns

Japan has not been a sexy destination for investment. In an environment of rising sovereign risk, Japan’s huge debt burden (+200% and rising) and lack of triple-A rating (Japan is rated AA-, Aa3 and AA by the main rating agencies) are not something that would attract the world’s investors, including the powerful central bank reserve managers.

However, the yen is a different story. Enjoying a safe-haven status, the Japanese currency is staying just below its all-time high around 75.90 per dollar, while it also rose to an 11-year peak against the euro in January.

JP Morgan,whose asset management arm manages $70 billion for 65 official sector clients including central banks and sovereign wealth funds, says reserve managers have been diversifying into non-G4 currencies but the strategy has not performed well.

January in the rearview mirror

As January 2012 drifts into the rearview mirror as a bumper month for world markets, one way to capture the year so far is in pictures – thanks to Scott Barber and our graphics team.

The driving force behind the market surge was clearly the latest liquidity/monetary stimuli from the world’s central banks.

The ECB’s near half trillion euros of 3-year loans  has stabilised Europe’s ailing banks by flooding them with cheap cash for much lower quality collateral. In the process, it’s also opened up critical funding windows for the banks and allowed some reinvestment of the ECB loans into cash-strapped euro zone goverments. That in turn has seen most euro government borrowing rates fall. It’s also allowed other corporates to come to the capital markets and JP Morgan estimates that euro zone corporate bond sales in January totalled 46 billion euros, the same last year and split equally between financials and non-financials..