Global Investing

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.

Indian stocks — buyers trickling back?

Last week snapped a three-week winning streak for Indian stocks — the first since last September for this year’s emerging markets laggard.  India,  an oil importer and a domestic demand play with high inflation, has languished this year in comparison with fellow-BRIC Russia which has returnedBRICS-TRADE/SUMMIT 14 percent so far, thanks to the $125/barrel oil price. But could the market be turning? Indian stocks, down 20 percent at one point in February, have cut their losses to 6 percent so far this year. And there are signs fund managers are piling back in.

ING Investment Management started buying Indian equities earlier this month for the first time since mid-2010. Inflation may have peaked and with state elections out of the way, politics may be less of an issue, they say. And Indian valuations, always expensive, are back in line with long term averages,  the fund’s strategist Maarten-Jan Bakkum notes. He is overweight Russia too but says that is driven by a tactical play on the oil price rather than any long-term conviction.

HSBC‘s head of emerging equities, John Lomax, says commodity and food price inflation may have peaked after a massive run and sees that leading to a change of tone within emerging markets. “We want to be a less exposed to the commodity themes now so we are less positive on Russia. But we like Turkey and we recently upgraded India and China, which are domestic demand plays.”

Russia’s babushka time-bomb

The babushka, that embodiment of Russian grandmotherly goodness that has spawned iconic dolls and inspired a Kate Bush song, poses one of the gravest threat to the Russian economy.

Moscow-based investment bank Renaissance Capital also expects this segment of the demography to spur politically risky pension reforms.

Russia’s pension system is coming under increasing strain thanks to growing life expectancy — particularly among women — and a shrinking labour force due to the collapse in birth rates in the 1990s.

from Davos Notebook:

Groundhog Day in Davos

groundhog

The programme may strike a different  note -- this year's Davos is apparently all about Shared Norms for the New Reality -- but much of the discussion at the 41st World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos this month will have a distinctly familiar ring to it.

Last January, the five-day talkfest in the Swiss Alps was dominated by Greece's near-death experience at the hands of the bond market and recriminations over the role of bankers in the financial crisis, as well as worries about China's rapid economic ascent and a lot of calls for a new trade deal.

Fast forward 12 months and not much has changed.

Ireland has joined Greece in the euro zone's intensive care unit and Portugal and  Spain are getting round-the-clock monitoring. The annual round of bankers' bonuses is once again stirring up trouble. China looms larger than ever on the global stage, after overtaking Japan in 2010 to become the world's second-biggest economy. And trade ministers who signally failed to make headway last year say they really must get down to business when they meet on the sidelines of Davos this time round.

from MacroScope:

APEC’s robots stealing the show

robot

A guide at the "Japanese Experience" exhibition talks to Miim, the Karaoke pal robot, on the sidelines of the APEC meetings in Yokohama, Japan on Nov. 10. REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao

    Miim is one of the more popular delegates at the APEC meetings in Yokohama Japan. She sings. She dances. She tosses her shoulder length hair. She may not be able to spout an alphabet soup of APEC acronyms like the other Asia-Pacific delegates. But she's still pretty lively. For a robot.

    This week's meetings of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum have been earnest and most comprehensive . Foreign and trade ministers issued a 20-page statement about all the things they talked about -- a giant free trade zone, protectionism, the Doha round, easing restrictions on businesses, simplifying customs procedures, promoting green industries, cooperating on health and security, you name it. They also have been, and pardon my French here, excruciatingly dull. So far, the meetings and their stupefying statements have been a testimonial to Japan's skill at stating the ambiguous. Call it the opaque meetings. Journalists from around the Pacific rim have been desperately trying to find news as the 21 APEC leaders gather for their annual pow-wow this weekend.

from MacroScope:

The word on Gordon Brown from Cayman

Gordon Brown is truly having a rough time. Rebuffed by the United States, International Monetary Fund and others for floating the idea of a tax on financial transactions at this weekend's G20 meeting, he has now got short shrift from the Cayman Islands.

McKeeva Bush, the veteran Caymanian politican who is now premier of the British Overseas Territory, popped in to the Reuters London headquarters for a chat this week. His main concern was to explain plans for making the islands an easier place for financial services personnel to live in. He would like some of those 8,000 hedge nearly 10,000 funds that are registered there to be more than just brass plaques. But, when asked, he also had time to dismiss the idea of a transaction tax out of hand.

"That's an old hat. I have been hearing about it for 25 years. It's just not practicable. It will not work."

from MacroScope:

G20 dilemmas amongst the golf balls

Interesting dilemmas facing G20 countries as their finance ministers and central bankers get together on the golf ball strewn Scottish coast ( a meeting in St Andrews we will be Live Blogging on MacroScope, by the way).

First, you have the Brazilians who are worried about hot money and have already slapped a tax on foreign investments in domestic bonds and stocks in order to cool down capital inflows.  They want the G20 to take action against what their central bank chief calls "imbalance- and bubble-building".

Next you have the Americans and other big economies who know that the huge amounts of stimulus they have put into the world economy have to be removed eventually. They are not ready to do it yet, but expect the G20 countries to discuss how they are going to "sequence" the great unwinding.

The Big Five: themes for the week ahead

Five things to think about this week:

Q3 – CLUES AND CUES
- Global equity markets started the quarter positioned for economic stabilisation after a strong Q2 performance but, even so, EPFR data shows less than a third of the cash that flooded into money market funds in 2008 has exited in the year to date. The Q2 reporting season, which is about to kick off (Alcoa out this week), will show whether there are reasons for investors to draw down their cash holdings further. The U.S. data that came out before the long July 4 weekend held more negative surprises than positive ones, and macroeconomic confirmation of recovery will be needed to tempt more wary investors into equities.

BOND YIELDS
- Benchmark U.S. and euro zone bond yields broke lower after the U.S. non-farm payroll data but the VIX hit some of its lowest levels post-Lehman and a recent compression of intra-euro zone spreads has yet to go markedly into reverse. Which of these trends turns out to be sustainable will become more evident in the next few weeks, particularly as U.S. supply resumes this week with TIPS, 3, 10, and 30 year auctions.

L’AQUILA SUMMIT
- The slow-burning international reserve currency debate could pop up at the G8/G8+5 big emerging powers summit in Italy this week. China’s public stance is that it is not pushing the issue but Beijing also reckons a debate on this would be normal at such a forum. It is unclear if any final statement will mention it in a way that would rattle FX markets. But sideline comments on the debate will be closely watched and particular focus will be on which countries, if any, would be willing to join China, Brazil and Russia in their commitment to buying the IMF SDR notes — for which crucial groundwork was laid down this week.

from MacroScope:

SDR bonds from the IMF?

Analysts are starting to wonder if the International Monetary Fund will issue bonds denominated in its currency, Special Drawing Rights (SDRs), to boost the international lender’s capital. 

G20 leaders meeting today are said to be ready to agree a tripling of the IMF’s resources, to $750 billion. One source at the summit said the IMF might also tap international capital markets. 

BNP Paribas analysts like the idea of SDR bonds that could be bought by central banks reallocating portfolios away from the dollar. “Increased IMF firepower and the IMF likely to issue SDR-denominated bonds later this year will allow equities to move significantly higher,” they say in a client note.

from MacroScope:

Japanese lessons

Japan, slightly sidelined by the U.S.-UK "special" relationship and the Franco-German alliance at the G20 summit, is keen to stress the country can offer lessons to be learned from the country's banking crisis in the 1990s.

Here's a re-cap of what happened. In 1992, then-PM Miyazawa warned of a financial crisis unless banks were recapitalised using public funds now. Yet no action was taken. Between 1995 and 1997, staggering 5 financial institutions failed, forcing the government to inject public funds into 21 banks in 1998. Then two major banks were nationalised, then the government injected additional capital into 32 banks.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner experienced the crisis himself as a financial attache at the U.S. embassy in Tokyo in the 1990s.