Central banks should hedge: Gary Smith

Gary Smith, head of central banks, supranational institutions and sovereign wealth funds at BNP Paribas Investment Partners, has written a special guest blog for Macroscope in which he argues that central banks should consider ways to hedge their FX reserves against the crisis.

“After the 2008 crisis, a mathematical approach to measure the adequate level of foreign exchange reserves – import cover or an equation relating to short-term debt – no longer has much credibility. In the absence of sensible guidelines on adequacy of reserves there is now a general desire to have plenty of reserves.


What is lacking from the reserves debate, however, is whether National Wealth Managers in general (and central bank reserves managers in particular) should invest in assets that might increase in value during a crisis.

The traditional approach of investing in short dated, high grade government bonds is based on the desire to be in safe and liquid assets, which is logical enough. However during a crisis, it is not the stable value of the assets in which reserves are invested which is of interest to the currency speculators, but the pace at which reserves are being spent to defend the value of the domestic currency. Foreign exchange reserve managers do not invest in assets which might appreciate during a crisis for two probable reasons, firstly these investments would be based on the use of derivatives, and secondly such a strategy, as with any insurance policy, would require the payment of premiums. But perhaps using a small proportion of the many monthly increases in the value of foreign exchange reserves to help insure against the intense pain that can be created during a crisis might make some sense?

reservesThis chart shows the monthly change in Asian foreign exchange reserves in each month during a 15 year period 1995-2010. In most months (73%) foreign exchange reserves increased, usually by a small increment. What is also clear is that although months in which reserves fall are considerably less frequent, a fat-tail decline can be debilitating for the NWMs, and indeed for the nation.

The Big Five: themes for the week ahead

Five things to think about this week:

- 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.

- 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. 

-  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.

Strolling away from the dollar

All this talk about ditching the dollar as world reserve currency may be irrelevant — central banks are already walking away.  The latest International Monetary Fund figures show dollar share of world FX reserves falling to 64.0 percent in last year’s fourth quarter from 64.4 percent the previous quarter. Doesn’t sound much, but at that pace dollar is less than half of world reserves in less than a decade. years. It was the same for once mighty sterling. The pound’s share dropped to 4 percent from 4.5 percent. The euro rose 1 percentage point to 26.5 percent.

Marc Chandler of  Brown Brothers Harriman says not too much should be made of this though. ”The reserve figures are heavily influenced by valuation swings,” he says.

Still, given the debate about SDRs. . .

(Reuters photo: Kai Pfaffenbach)