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.

Emerging markets facing current account pain

Emerging markets may yet pay dearly for the sins of their richer cousins. While recent financial crises have been rooted in the United States and euro zone, analysts at Credit Agricole are questioning whether a full-fledged emerging markets crisis could be on the horizon, the first since the series of crashes from Argentina to Turkey over a decade ago. The concern stems from the worsening balance of payments picture across the developing world and the need to plug big  funding shortfalls.

The above chart from Credit Agricole shows that as recently as 2006, the 34 big emerging economies ran a cumulative current account surplus of 5.2 percent of GDP. By end-2011 that had dwindled to 1.7 percent of GDP. More worrying yet is the position of “deficit” economies. The current account gap here has widened to 4 percent of GDP, more than double 2006 levels and the biggest since the 1980s. The difficulties are unlikely to disappear this year, Credit Agricole says,  predicting India, Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia, Vietnam, Poland and Romania to run current account deficits of over 4 percent this year.

Some fiscally profligate countries such as India may have mainly themselves to blame for their plight. But in general, emerging nations after the Lehman crisis were forced to embark on massive spending to buck up domestic consumption and offset the collapse of Western export markets. For this reason, many were unable to raise interest rates or did so too late. As the woes of the Turkish lira and Indian rupee showed last year, the yawning funding gap leaves many countries horribly exposed to the vagaries of global risk appetite.