Global Investing

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:

This time, however, we are not looking for the same kind of euro pick-up that we saw in 2009. FX reserve managers typically invest in securities rated AA or higher. Even if they extend durations out to the 5-year area of sovereign curves, an average of AA/AAA Eurozone yields only pays 0.75% – exactly the same as Treasuries.5-year UK gilts are not much better at 0.9 % while Japan pays a measly 0.2% on 5-year bonds.

Instead ING analysts reckon FX reserve managers will go for currencies such as the Australian and Canadian dollars. Thanks to slightly better yields, and large, liquid bond markets,  a carry basket invested in the Australian, Canadian, Norwegian and Swedish currencies and funded out of the dollar, euro, sterling and yen will have an annualised carry pick up of 1.6%, the analysts say. That sounds pretty modest but according to ING, FX outperformance can deliver returns of over 10% on this basket. They write:

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.

Japan fires latest FX wars salvo; other Asians to follow

Emerging central banks that sold billions of dollars over the summer in defence of their currencies might soon be forced to do the opposite. Japan’s massive currency intervention on Monday knocked the yen substantially lower not only versus the dollar but also against other Asian currencies.  The action is unlikely to sit well with other central banks struggling to boost economic growth and raises  the prospect of a fresh round of tit-for-tat currency depreciations. Already on Monday, central banks from South Korea and Singapore were suspected of wading into currency markets to buy dollars and push down their currencies which have recovered strongly from September’s selloff.  The won for instance is up 6.9 percent in October against the dollar — its biggest monthly gain since April 2009.  The Singapore dollar is up 4.5 percent, the result of a huge improvement in risk appetite.

Despite the interventions, the yen ended the session more than 2 percent lower against both the won and the Singapore dollar,  and most analysts reckon Japan’s latest intervention is by no means its last. That’s bad news for companies that compete with Japan on export markets and will keep neighbouring central banks watching for the BOJ’s next move. “Asian central banks are likely to play in the same game, and keep currencies competitive via regular interventions,” BNP Paribas analysts said.

But the race to the bottom has been underway for some time.  After all central banks in the West have cut rates, as in the euro zone, and embarked on more quantitative easing, as in the UK.  One bank, Switzerland’s, has gone as far as to effectively establish a ceiling for its currency.  And in Asia, Indonesia surprised markets with an interest rate cut this month while Singapore eased monetary policy. Many expect South Korea’s next move also to be a rate cut even though inflation is running well above target.  Analysts at Credit Agricole predicted this week’s G20 meeting to yield no fruitful discussion on what they termed “currency manipulation”. “This lack of co-ordinated policy could trigger an escalation in ongoing currency wars,” Credit Agricole analyst Adam Myers told clients. That would in turn lead to a renewed acceleration in central banks’ dollar reserves, he added.

Is end-game approaching for Turkey’s policy experiment?

In less than two months, Turkey will mark the first anniversary of the start of an unusual monetary policy experiment, and it may well do so by calling it off.  The experiment hinged on cutting interest rates while raising banks’ reserve ratio requirements, and as recently as August, the central bank was hoping  it would be able to slow a local credit boom a bit but still protect exports by keeping the currency cheap.  Instead, an investor exodus from emerging markets has put the lira to the sword, fuelling at one point a 20 percent collapse in its value against the dollar.  That has forced the central bank to roll back some of the reserve ratio hikes and last week it jacked up overnight lending rates in an attempt to boost the currency. It has also sold vast quantities of dollars and is promising  to unveil more  measures on Wednesday.

But what the market really wants to see is an increase in Turkey’s main interest rate.  ”Not sure that ‘measures’ short of rate hikes will help,” RBS analyst Tim Ash writes.

Given Turkey’s massive current account deficit of almost 10 percent of GDP, an interest rate of 5.75 percent will provide little protection to the lira if emerging markets come under serious pressure again. Even if the lira stabilises at current levels, an inflation spike to double-digits looks inevitable.  Meanwhile the central bank’s hard currency reserves are vanishing at an alarming rate — just last week it spent $2.7 billion. That’s a lot given Turkish reserves are just $86 billion, or  four months of imports.  Current central bank policy is  ”an open door to reserve depletion,” Societe Generale strategist Guillaume Salomon says,  noting that despite the massive dollar sales,  the lira is not far off record lows hit earlier this month.

from MacroScope:

The Big Five: themes for the week ahead

Five things to think about this week:

BOND YIELDS 
- Nominal bond yields have risen across the curve, while term premiums and fixed income volatility are higher in an environment of uncertainty about how central banks will exit from quantitative easing policies once recovery takes hold. Bonds have turned into the worst-performing asset class this year according to Citi and none of the factors which markets have blamed for this are about to disappear. Curve steepening seen in April/May has started to reverse and whether it continues is being viewed as a more open question than whether yields head higher still.

RATTLING EQUITIES? 
- World stocks' are struggling to extend the near-50 percent gains seen since March 9 but they have yet to succumb to gravity despite a back up in government bond yields. Citigroup analysts reckon global equity markets can rally as long as Treasury yields stay below 5-6 percent but it might be the speed of yield moves that determines whether equities get rattled or keep looking past higher borrowing costs to the recovery story. 

INFLATION EXPECTATIONS 
-  Increases in the prices of oil and other commodities have seen the CRB index rise about 30 percent in less than four months and sustained gains will risk filtering through to prices and price expectations. Inflation reports are due out on both sides of the Atlantic next week but markets are looking further out and starting to price in the risks of a pick up in price pressures. Breakevens have turned positive all along the U.S. yield curve for the first time since autumn and euro zone breakevens have risen. Also, a Bank of England survey indicates public price expectations are up. Bid/cover ratios and tails at inflation-linked bond auctions will tell their own story on extent of demand for inflation hedges.