Global Investing

The hryvnia is all right

The fate of Ukraine’s hryvnia currency hangs by a thread. Will that thread break?

The hryvnia’s crawling peg has so far held as the central bank has dipped steadily into its reserves to support it. But the reserves are dwindling and political unrest is growing. Forwards markets are therefore betting on quite a sizeable depreciation  (See graphic below from brokerage Exotix).

 

The thing to remember is that the key to avoiding a messy devaluation lies not with the central bank but with a country’s households. As countless emerging market crises over decades have shown, currency crises occur when people lose trust in their currency and leadership, withdraw their savings from banks and convert them into hard currency.  That is something no central bank can fight. Now Ukraine’s households hold over $50 billion in bank deposits, according to calculations by Exotix. Of this a third is in hard currency (that’s without counting deposits by companies).  But despite all the ruckus there is no sign of long queues outside banks or currency exchange points, scenes familiar to emerging market watchers.

So what are the reasons?  First, households and businesses seem confident of a muddle-through scenario (this view is shared by most, though not, foreign analysts). Possibly, the optimism is based on the central bank’s  track record this year on defending the hryvnia. It also seems likely that with some foreign aid (bits and bobs garnered from Russia, China and the EU) and by using the remaining reserves, Ukraine can hold it together until 2015 elections are past and the government can finally knuckle down to the rigours of an IMF aid programme.

Second, people will not find it easy to turn their backs on the 14-25 percent annual rate they can earn on their bank deposits. In smaller, lower quality banks, bank deposits might earn up to 27-28 percent a year.  Inflation meanwhile is running below zero.  David Hauner, head of EEMEA fixed income strategy at BofA-Merrill Lynch Global Research, says:

Turkish savers hang onto dollars

As in many countries with memories of hyperinflation and currency collapse, Turkey’s middle class have tended to hold at least part of their savings in hard currency. But unlike in Russia and Argentina, Turkish savers’ propensity to save in dollars has on occasion proved helpful to companies and the central bank. That’s because many Turks, rather than just accumulating dollars, have evolved into savvy players of exchange rate swings and often use sharp falls in the lira to sell their dollars and buy back the local currency. Hence Turks’ hard currency bank deposits, estimated at between $70-$100 billion –  on a par with central bank reserves — have acted as a buffer of sorts, stabilising the lira when it falls past a certain level.

But back in 2011, when the lira was in the eye of another emerging markets storm, we noticed how some Turks had become strangely reluctant to sell dollars. And during this year’s bout of lira weakness too, Turkish savers have not stepped up to help out the central bank, research by Barclays finds. Instead they are accumulating dollars — “rather than being contrarian, their behaviour now seems aligned with global capital flows,” Barclays  analysts write. While the lira has weakened to record lows this year, data from UBS shows that the dollarisation ratio, the percentage of bank deposits in foreign currency, has actually crept up to 37.6 percent from 34.5 percent at the start of the year. Here’s a Barclays graphic that illustrates the shift.

What are the reasons for the turnaround? In the past, those selling dollars to buy back cheap lira could be confident they would not be out of pocket because the central bank would support the lira with higher interest rates.  But ever since end-2010, when the bank embarked on a policy of determinedly keeping interest rates low, they no longer have this assurance. Barclays write:

Weekly Radar-”Slow panic” feared on Cyprus as central banks meet and US reports jobless

US MARCH JOBS REPORT/THREE OF G4 CENTRAL BANKS THURS/NEW QUARTER BEGINS/FINAL MARCH PMIS/KENYA SUPREME COURT RULING/SPAIN-FRANCE BOND AUCTIONS

Given the sound and fury of the past fortnight, it’s hard not to conclude that the messiness of the eventual Cyprus bailout is another inflection point in the whole euro crisis. For most observers, including Mr Dijsselbloem it seems, it ups the ante again on several fronts – 1) possible bank contagion via nervy senior creditors and depositors fearful of bail-ins at the region’s weakest institutions; 2) an unwelcome rise in the cost of borrowing for European banks who remain far more levered than US peers and are already grinding down balance sheets to the detriment of the hobbled European economy; and 3) likely heavy economic and social pressures in Cyprus going forward that, like Greece, increase euro exit risk to some degree. Add reasonable concerns about the credibility and coherence of euro policymaking during this latest episode and a side-order of German/Dutch ‘orthodoxy’ in sharp relief and it all looks a bit rum again.

Yet the reaction of world markets has been relatively calm so far. Wall St is still stalking record highs through it all for example as signs of the ongoing US recovery mount. So what gives? Today’s price action was interesting in that it started to show investors discriminating against European assets per se – most visible in the inability of European stocks to follow Wall St higher and lunge lower in euro/dollar exchange rate. European bank stocks and bonds have been knocked back relatively sharply this week post-Dijsselbloem too. If this decoupling pattern were to continue, it will remain a story of the size of the economic hit and relative underperformance. But that would change if concerns morphed into euro exit and broader systemic fears and prepare for global markets at large to feel the heat again too. We’re not back there yet with the benefit of the doubt on OMTs and pressured policy reactions still largely conceded. But many of the underlying movements that might feed system-wide stresses – what some term a “slow panic” like deposit shifts etc – will be impossible to monitor systematically by investors for many weeks yet and so nervy times are ahead as we enter Q2 after the Easter break.