Global Investing

Pity Poor Pound

Britain’s pound has long been the whipping boy of notoriously fickle currency markets, but there are worrying signs that it’s not just hedge funds and speculators who have lost faith in sterling. Reuters FX columnist Neal Kimberley neatly illustrated yesterday just how poor sentiment toward sterling in the dealing rooms has become and the graphic below (on the sharp buildup of speculative ‘short’ positsions seen in U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission data) shows how deeply that negative view has become entrenched.              

 While the pound’s inexorable grind down to parity with the euro captures the popular headlines, the Bank of England’s index of sterling against a trade-weighted basket of world currencies shows that weakness is pervasive. The index has lost more than a quarter of its value in little over two years — by far the worst of the G4 (dollar, euro, sterling and yen) currencies over the financial crisis. The dollar’s equivalent index has shed only about a third of the pound’s losses since mid-2007, while the euro’s has jumped about 10% and the yen’s approximately 20% over that period.

There’s no shortage of negatives — Britain’s deep recession, recent housing bust, near zero interest rates and money printing, soaring government budget deficit (forecast at more than 12% pf GDP next year, it’s the highest of the G20) and looming general election in early 2010. In the relative world of currency traders, not all of these are necessarily bad for the pound — the country is emerging tentatively from recession, the dominant financial services sector is recovering rapidly and  short-term interest rates (3-month Libor at least) do offer better returns than the dollar, yen, Swiss franc or Canadian dollar. 

But recent data from the IMF on global hard currency reserves shows there may be a more disturbing exit of central bank reserve managers from the pound (no stranger to process of losing reserve currency status, as its pole position was ceded to the dollar after WWI).  Sterling’s share of the almost $7 trln of world central bank reserves — which are rising sharply again after a brief hiatus due to the credit crunch — is being steadily eroded. 

Although nominal reserve holdings of sterling (the rise of which prior to the crisis was seen as a powerful supporter of both the currency and gilt market) did rise by more than $10 bln in the second quarter, they remain about $24 billion below the peaks of Q2 2008. What’s more, Citi economist Michael Saunders estimates that once you adjust for revaluation effects of currency rate swings, central bank holdings of sterling actually fell in Q2 this year.  He reckons that, accounting for these adjustments, Q2 was the second consecutive quarter of net sterling sales by central banks and that the 4 billion pound drop in nominal sterling holdings was the biggest on record. Saunders concludes:

Yuan vs. Dollar

The United States and China hold economic and strategic talks in Washington starting on July 27. The United States, International Monetary Fund and other groups have urged China to allow its currency to appreciate in order to help unwind global imbalances. Here is a chart showing the Chinese yuan vs the U.S. dollar.

UPDATE: More on U.S.-China economic ties here.

The Big Five: themes for the week ahead

Five things to think about this week:
    
PUTTING THE RALLY TO THE TEST
- The surge in risk markets has tapered off as investors take stock of recent weeks’ rally and the data flow injects a dose of sobriety. The scale and duration of any market pullback will be the test of how much sentiment has really changed. Sluggish April U.S. retail sales were the biggest cause for pause and this week’s flash PMIs will give more Q2 information.

FX FOCUS
- A pause in the recent recovery in relatively risky markets is shifting attention to the changing FX environment. Clear-cut correlations between moves in major FX rates and swings in risk appetite could be in the process of being eroded and some in the financial markets are wondering if and when relative economic performance will replace risk appetite as a driver for exchange rates. Investment flows will be affected if the dollar looks like it might resume a long-term downtrend.

QE EXIT STRATEGY
ECB, BOE, Fed officials are making reassuring noises about QE exit strategies but no clear mechanism or timeframe has yet emerged and all indications are that balance sheet expansion is still the order of the day. Yield moves suggest bond markets are more enthused in the short term by signs they will kept on the QE drip feed than by concern about the potential price problems down the road. Central bankers have yet to address the back up in yields that would be seen if they were they to exit the market at a time when debt issuance is continuing to flood the market – as it will for some time to come.

Carry on falling

Graphic evidence from Investec Asset Management (below) highlighting the demise of the carry trade. It shows returns from borrowing low-yielding currencies such as Japanese yen to buy high-yielding ones over the past 7-1/2 years or so.  There has been a roughy 50 percent decline since the end of July.

The insane mantra of emerging markets

With emerging market stocks taking a beating, now would not seem to be an obvious time to launch new equity funds for the asset class. Benchmarker MSCI’s main emerging market stock index, after all, has lost more than a quarter of its value so far this year and concerns about the U.S. economic slowdown spreading are rife.

Despite this, U.S. investment manager Putnam says it is set to launch two new emerging market equity funds in October – one for U.S. investors, the other for Europeans. Is this perverse or prescient?

Putnam, of course, reckons it is the latter. During a chat with Reuters in London, Boston-based officials said the move reflected the long-term outlook for Pulling for emerging marketsemerging markets which has not changed during the current market ructions. Growth projections for emerging economies remain far more attractive for equities than do those for developed markets, said Matthew Scales, a senior investment product manager.