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July 1, 2013

All Eyes on the US Dollar in 2011. Economic Recovery and Rising Yields Could Buoy the Greenback.

Filed under: US Dollar — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — admin @ 5:13 pm

According to Standard Life Investments, the US Dollar will be one of the top currencies in 2011. (The other currency they cited was the British Pound). How can we understand this notion in the context of record high gold prices and commentary pieces with titles such as “Timing the Inevitable Decline of the U.S. Dollar?”

The Dollar finished 2010 on a high note, both on a trade-weighted basis and against its arch-nemesis, the Euro. Speculators are now net long the Dollar, and according to one analyst, it is now fully “entrenched in rally mode.” Never mind that its performance against the Yen, Franc, and a handful of emerging market currencies was less than stellar; given all that happened over the last couple years, the fact that the Dollar Index is trading near its recent historical average means that the bears have some explaining to do.

To be sure, none of the long-term risks have been addressed. US public debt continues to surge, and will not likely abate in 2011 due to recent tax cuts. Short-term interest rates remain grounded at zero, and long-term yields have only just begun to inch up, which means that risk-taking investors still have cause to shun the Dollar. Ironically, signs of economic recovery in the US have reinforced this trend: “The [positive economic] data, which one would ultimately assume is positive for the U.S., looks better for risk, which in turn puts downward pressure on the dollar.” Finally, the the Financial Balance of Terror makes the US vulnerable to a sudden decision by Central Banks to dump the Dollar.

So what’s driving the Dollar in the short-term? The main factor is of course continued uncertainty in the Eurozone over still-unfolding fiscal crisis, which is directly driving a shift of capital from the EU to the US. Next, the budget-busting tax cuts that I mentioned above are predicted to both boost economic growth and make it less likely that the Federal Reserve Bank will have to deploy the entire $600 Billion that it initially set aside for QE2. (To date, it has spent “only” $175 Billion in this follow-up campaign, compared to the $1.75 Trillion that it deployed in QE1). According to The Economist, “JPMorgan raised its growth forecast for the fourth quarter of next year to 3.5% from 3% as a result [of the tax cuts]. Macroeconomic Advisers, a consultancy, says the new package could raise growth to 4.3% next year, up from its current forecast of 3.7%.”


In fact, long-term rates on US debt have started to creep up. They recently surpassed comparable rates in Canada, and even risk-taking investors are taking notice: “U.S. bond yields are attractive and interesting again,” indicated one analyst. Of course, when analyzing the recent increase in bond yields, it’s impossible to disentangle inflation expectations from concerns over default from optimism over economic. Nevertheless, the consensus is that rates/yields can only rise from here: “The CBO [Congressional Budget Office] estimates that interest rates on 3-month bills and 10-year notes will reach 5.0% and 5.9%, respectively, by 2020.”

As if this wasn’t enough, the exodus out of the US Dollar over the last few decades has virtually ceased, with the US Dollar still accounting for a disproportionate 62.7% of global forex reserves. Furthermore, economists are now coming out of the woodwork to defend the Dollar and argue that its supposed demise is overblown. At last week’s annual meeting of the American Economic Association (and in a related research paper), Princeton University economist Peter B. Kenen “argued that neither Europe’s nor China’s currency presents a valid substitute–nor an International Monetary Fund alternative to the dollar that was created some 40 years ago.” Even if the RMB was a viable reserve currency – which it isn’t – Kenen points out that for all its bluster, China has shied away from taking a more active leadership role in solving global economic issues.

In short, as I’ve argued previously, the Dollar is safe, not just for the time being, but probably for a while.

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June 30, 2013

The Obama Budget and the Dollar: Perennial Deficits and Rising National Debt Threaten the Dollar’s Long-Term Status as Global Reserve Currency.

Last week, the Obama Administration released its fiscal 2012 budget to much fanfare. Unfortunately, the budget makes only a token effort to address the rising National debt, and forecasts a budget deficit of $1.1 Trillion. While the release of the budget failed to make a splash in currency markets, traders would be wise to understand its implications for the future.


The budget proposes spending of $3.7 Trillion in 2012, and forecasts receipts of only $2.6 Trillion. As usual, entitlements (Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid: $2 Trillion+), Defense ($760 Billion), and net interest on debt ($250 Billion) are projected to consume the brunt of spending. The Departments of State, Education, Energy, and Veterans Fairs will receive an increased allocation, while almost all other Departments face drastic cuts. (For more comprehensive breakdowns, the WSJ and NY Times offer excellent graphical representations of how the federal budget is funded and disbursed).

The proposed budget allows for a deficit of $1.1 Trillion (7% of GDP), which unbelievably represents a significant decrease from the $1.6 Trillion (11% of GDP) that is projected for fiscal 2011. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) forecasts the deficit to return to a more “sustainable” level of 3% of GDP beginning in 2014, which should allow the national debt to remain constant in relative terms for the following decade. Beginning in 2021, however, entitlement spending is projected to skyrocket, which would cause debt to rise similarly.

CBO projections are based on a handful of rosy assumptions. First of all, it assumes that the US economy will grow at 3%+ for the indefinite future. Second, it assumes that deficit spending can be financed at reasonable interest rates. Third, it assumes that tax receipts will rise from current lows and revert back to historical levels. Given the ongoing economic uncertainty, high unemployment rates, tax cuts, rising interest rates, the difficulty of cutting spending, etc., there is reason to believe that actual deficits will be even higher.


In fact, net interest payments on national debt will rise 33% over the next year even as Treasury rates remain at record lows. If the economic recovery gathers momentum (something that the budget is counting on), risk appetite and interest rates must rise. In addition, given that the national debt will probably double from 2009 to 2012, it seems likely that investors will demand an increased risk premium for lending to the US. On the other hand, demand for Treasury Securities continues to remain strong: “Net long-term securities transactions showed total buying of $65.9 billion in long-term U.S. securities in December, after purchases of $85.1 billion the month before.” Many Central Banks continue to be net buyers.

In addition, there are some commentators that think the Fed will abet the US government in deflating the real value of its debt. Since the majority of US Treasury Securities are not inflation-protected, 15 years of high inflation (~5%) would be enough to decrease the real debt burden by half. Especially when you account for “contingent obligations,” this might be the only feasible way for the government to deal with its debt burden over the long-term. Then again, higher inflation would probably drive proportional increases in yield, such that the Treasury Department would have a tough time rolling over existing debt (let alone in issuing new debt) at reasonable interest rates.

The main variable in all of this is politics. Specifically, this budget is still only a proposal. The actual budget won’t be ratified for at least another six months, and only after tense negotiations with the Republican Party. (There is also the possibility that it won’t be passed at all, which is what happened with the fiscal 2011 budget). “House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican, said his party will propose ‘very bold’ changes to entitlements in their 2012 budget resolution.” Anything short of this wouldn’t dent the projected deficits and would push Social Security / Medicare closer towards the brink of insolvency.

In the end, the deficit merely represents business as usual for the US government. Barring a double-dip recession, it probably won’t be enough to seriously impact the Dollar’s status in the short-term as preeminent global reserve currency. However, that could start to change over the next decade, as the government either takes steps or does nothing to mitigate the looming entitlements crisis. At that time, the long-term viability of the Dollar (and the financial system as we know it) will become clear.

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June 29, 2013

Does Japan’s “Triple Disaster” Threaten the Dollar? Demand for US Treasury Securities Remains Strong.

Filed under: US Dollar — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — admin @ 5:14 pm

While analysts have been busy dissecting the implications of the natural disasters that ravage(d) Japan for forex markets, the focus has naturally been directed towards the Yen. Given all the rumors about the liquidation of foreign (i.e. Dollar-denominated) assets, it’s also worth examining the potential impact on the Dollar. In a nutshell, Japan’s holdings of US Treasury Securities are extensive, and even a partial unloading could have serious implications for the world’s de facto reserve currency.

As I explained in my previous post, the Yen rose to a record high (against the Dollar) following the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear crisis because of rumors that Japanese insurance companies and other financial institutions would begin repatriating all of their foreign assets in order to pay for rebuilding. (For the record, it’s worth pointing out again that this has yet to take place, and any repatriation is probably related to the approaching fiscal-year end. Thus, the Yen is being propelled by speculation/short squeeze. Period.)

Indeed, Goldman  Sachs has estimated that the rebuilding effort will probably cost around $200 Billion. A significant portion of this will no doubt be covered by the payout of insurance claims. How insurance companies will make their claims is of course, unknown. However, consider that Japanese insurance companies have insisted that they have ample cash reserves. In addition, Japan has what is perhaps the world’s most solid earthquake reinsurance (basically insurance for insurers) program, which means primary insurance companies can basically pass these claims up the chain, perhaps all the way to the government.

As for whether the Bank of Japan will sell some its $900 Billion in Treasury holdings, this, too appears unlikely. First of all, the Bank of Japan is doing everything in its power to soften the upward pressure on the Yen, which would not be consistent with selling any of its Dollar-assets. Second,  the Financial Times has further argued that they will be especially unlikely to sell US Treasury securities, because they would lose money on (US Dollar) currency depreciation. Besides, any assets that are sold now to pay for rebuilding would probably need to be repurchased later in order to restore balance sheet equilibrium.

While I am on the topic, I want to draw attention to a recent Treasury report that documented the overseas holdings of Treasury securities. The major surprise was China, whose holdings were revised upwards to $1.18 Trillion (from $892 Billion), which means it is well-entrenched as the most important creditor to the US. However, this was offset by a 50% drop in the Bank of England’s holdings, caused perhaps by a change from US debt to British debt.

As I have written in the past, it seems unlikely – for political, economic, and financial – reasons that China will move to pare its Treasury holdings in a significant way. Simply, it has no other viable options for investing the foreign exchange reserves that it is forced to accumulate because of the Yuan-Dollar peg. Other doomsdays have speculated that the crisis in the Middle East will end the “petro-Dollar” phenomenon, whereby oil exporters settle their bills almost exclusively in Dollars and use the proceeds to buy Treasuries. While US influence in the Mid East may indeed wane further as a result of the ongoing political turmoil, I don’t think this will force a change to the PetroDollar phenomenon, which is due as much to unavoidable trade surpluses as it is to settling oil transactions in US Dollars.

There is certainly some concern about what will happen when the Fed wraps up QE2 later this year and stops buying Trreasury securities. Two prominent investment companies (PIMCO and Vanguard) have warned that this will cause bond prices to fall and interest rates on debt to rise rapidly. While this is certainly possible, demand for Treasuries will remain strong for as long as the current risk-averse climate remains in place. In addition, given that the US Treasury is not in danger of defaulting anytime soon, yields reflect expectations for inflation and interest rates more than supply/demand for the bonds themselves. Finally, when the Fed stopped buying mortgage backed securities in 2010, mortgage rates fell, contrary to expectations.

In short, the Dollar might continue to fall against the Yen as speculators cover their short positions, but not because of any fundamental reasons. On an aggregate basis, the never-ending string of crises won’t cause the Dollar to collapse. If anything, it might even bring some risk-averse capital back to the US and re-affirm the Dollar’s status as global reserve currency.

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June 28, 2013

Fed Mulls End to Easy Money Policy. Early Rate Hike Would Boost the Dollar.

Filed under: US Dollar — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — admin @ 5:13 pm

Forex traders have very suddenly tilted their collective focus towards interest rate differentials. Given that the Dollar is once again in a state of free fall, it seems the consensus is that the Fed will be the last among the majors to hike rates. As I’ll explain below, however, there are a number of reasons why this might not be the case.

First of all, the economic recovery is gathering momentum. According to a Bloomberg News poll, “The US economy is forecast to expand at a 3.4 percent rate this quarter and 3.3 percent rate in the second quarter.” More importantly, the unemployment rate has finally begun to tick down, and recently touched an 18-month low. While it’s not clear whether this represents a bona fide increase in employment or merely job-hunting fatigue among the unemployed, it nonetheless will directly feed into the Fed’s decision-making process.

In fact, the Fed made such an observation in its March 15 FOMC monetary policy statement, though it prefaced this with a warning about the weak housing market. Similarly, it noted that a stronger economy combined with rising commodity prices could feed into inflation, but this too, it tempered with the dovish remark that “measures of underlying inflation continue to be somewhat low.” As such, it warned of “exceptionally low levels for the federal funds rate for an extended period.”

To be sure, interest rate futures reflect a 0% likelihood of any rate hikes in the next 6 months. In fact, there is a 33% chance that the Fed will hike before the end of the year, and only a 75% chance of a 25 basis point rise in January of 2012. On the other hand, some of the Fed Governors are starting to take more hawkish positions in the media about the prospect of rate hikes: “Minneapolis Federal Reserve President Narayana Kocherlakota said rates should rise by up to 75 basis points by year-end if core inflation and economic growth picked up as he expected.” Given that he is a voting member of the FOMC, this should not be written off as idle talk.

Meanwhile, Saint Louis Fed President James Bullard has urged the Fed to end its QE2 program, and he isn’t alone. “Philadelphia Fed President Charles Plosner and Richmond Fed President Jeffrey Lacker have also urged a review of the purchases in light of a strengthening economy and concern over future inflation.” While the FOMC voted in March to “maintain its existing policy of reinvesting principal payments from its securities holdings and…purchase $600 billion of longer-term Treasury securities by the end of the second quarter of 2011,” it has yet to reiterate this position in light of these recent comments to the contrary, and investors have taken notice.

Assumptions will probably be revised further following tomorrow’s release of the minutes from the March meeting, though investors will probably have to wait until April 27 for any substantive developments. The FOMC statement from that meeting will be scrutinized closely for any subtle tweaks in wording.

Ultimately, the take-away from all of this is that this record period of easy money will soon come to an end. Whether this year or the next, the Fed is finally going to put some monetary muscle behind the Dollar.

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June 27, 2013

Risk Still Dominates Forex Markets

Filed under: US Dollar — Tags: , , , , — admin @ 5:21 pm

Well over two years have passed since the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the accompanying climax of the credit crisis. Most economies have emerged from recession, stocks have recovered, credit markets are strong, and commodities prices are well on their way to new record highs. And yet, even the most cursory scanning of headlines reveals that all is not well in forex markets. Hardly a week goes by without a report of “risk averse” investors flocking to “safe haven” currencies.

As you can see from the chart below, forex volatility has risen steadily since the Japanese earthquake/tsunami in March. Ignoring the spike of the day (clearly visible in the chart), volatility is nearing a 2011 high.What’s driving this trend? Bank of America Merrill Lynch calls it the “known unknown.” In a word: uncertainty. Fiscal pressures are mounting across the G7. The Eurozone’s woes are certainly the most pressing, but that doesn’t mean the debt situation in the US, UK, and Japan are any less serious. There is also general economic uncertainty, over whether economic recovery can be sustained, or whether it will flag in the absence of government or monetary stimulus. Speaking of which, investors are struggling to get a grip on how the end of quantitative easing will impact exchange rates, and when and to what extent central banks will have to raise interest rates. Commodity prices and too much cash in the system are driving price inflation, and it’s unclear how long the Fed, ECB, etc. will continue to play chicken with monetary policy.

Every time doubt is cast into the system – whether from a natural disaster, monetary press release, surprise economic indicator, ratings downgrade – investors have been quick to flock back into so-called safe haven currencies, showing that appearances aside, they are still relatively on edge. Even the flipside of this phenomenon – risk appetite – is really just another manifestation of risk aversion. In other words, if traders weren’t still so nervous about the prospect of another crisis, they would have no reasons to constantly tweak their risk exposure and reevaluate their appetite for risk.

Over the last few weeks, the US dollar has been reborn as a preeminent safe haven currency, having previously surrendered that role to the Swiss Franc and Japanese Yen. Both of these currencies have already touched record highs against the dollar in 2011. For all of the concern over quantitative easing and runaway inflation and low interest rates and surging national debt and economic stagnation and high unemployment (and the list certainly goes on…), the dollar is still the go-to currency in times of serious risk aversion. Its capital markets are still the deepest and broadest, and the indestructible Treasury security is still the world’s most secure and liquid investment asset. When the Fed ceases its purchases of Treasuries (in June), US long-term rates should rise, further entrenching the dollar’s safe haven status. In fact, the size of US capital markets is a double-edge sword; since the US is able to absorb many times as much risk-averse capital as Japan (and especially Switzerland, sudden jumps in the dollar due to risk aversion will always be understated compared to the franc and yen.

On the other side of this equation stands virtually every other currency: commodity currencies, emerging market currencies, and the British pound and euro. When safe haven currencies go up (because of risk aversion), other currencies will typically fall, though some currencies will certainly be impacted more than others. The highest-yielding currencies, for example, are typically bought on that basis, and not necessarily for fundamental reasons. (The Australian Dollar and Brazilian Real are somewhere in between, featuring good fundamentals and high short-term interest rates). As volatility is the sworn enemy of the carry trade, these currencies are usually the first to fall when the markets are gripped by a bout of risk aversion.

Of course, it’s nearly impossible to anticipate ebbs and flows in risk appetite. Still, just being aware how these fluctuations will manifest themselves in forex markets means that you will be a step ahead when they take place.

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Has the US Dollar Hit Bottom? When will the Correction Come?

Filed under: US Dollar — Tags: , , , — admin @ 5:15 pm

In April, I declared that the dollar would rally when QE2 ended. That date – June 30 – is now only a few weeks away, which means it won’t be long before we know whether I was right. Meanwhile, the dollar is close to pre-credit crisis levels on a composite basis, and has already fallen to record lows against a handful of specific currencies. In other words, it’s now do-or-die for the dollar.


Since my last update, a number of things have happened. Commodity prices have continued to rise, and inflation has ticked up slightly. Meanwhile, GDP growth has moderated, the unemployment rate has stagnated at 9%, and the S&P has fallen slightly as investors brace for the possibility of an economic downturn. Finally, long-term interest rates have fallen, despite concerns that the US will be forced to breach the debt ceiling imposed by Congress.

From the standpoint of fundamentals, there is very little to get excited about when it comes to the dollar. While the US is likely to avoid a double-dip recession (the case for this was most convincingly made by TIME Magazine, of all sources), GDP growth is unlikely to rebound strongly. Exports are growing, but slowly. Businesses are investing (in machines, not people), but they are still holding record amounts of cash. Consumption is strong, but unsustainable. The government will do what it can to keep spending, but given that the deficit is projected at 10% of GDP in 2011 and that Congress is playing hardball with the debt ceiling, it can’t be expected to provide the engine of growth.

Meanwhile, Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the Fed, has implied that QE2 will not be followed by QE3. Still, he warned that “economic conditions are likely to warrant exceptionally low levels for the federal-funds rate for an extended period.” With low growth, high unemployment, and low inflation, there isn’t any impetus to even think about raising interest rates. In fact, Bernanke and his cohorts will continue to do everything in their power to hold down the dollar, if only to provide a boost to exports. Bill Dudley, head of the New York Fed, intimated in a recent speech that the Fed’s current monetary policy is basically a response to emerging market economies’ failure to allow their currencies to rise.

In short, if I was arguing that fundamentals would provide the basis for renewed dollar strength, I would have a pretty weak case. As I wrote a few weeks ago, however, there is a wrinkle to this story, in the form of risk. You see- the dollar continues to derive some significant support from risk-averse investors, as evidenced by the fact that Treasury yields have fallen to record lows.


Ironically, demand for the US dollar is inversely proportional to the strength of US fundamentals. As the US economy has rebounded, investors have become more comfortable about risk, and have responded by unloading safe haven positions in the dollar. With the US recovery faltering, investors are slowly moving back into the dollar, re-establishing safe haven positions. While the dollar faces some competition in this regard from the Franc and the Yen, it still compares favorably with the euro and pound.

In fact, some traders are betting that the dollar’s fortunes may be about to reverse. It has fallen 15% over the last year, en route to a 3-year low. With short positions so high, it would only take a minor crisis to trigger a short squeeze. Said the CEO of the world’s largest forex hedge fund (John Taylor of FX Concepts): “We see a big upside USD catalyst in the next ’3 or 4 days’ on the grounds that…’Our analysis of the markets has shown that they are very, very dangerous.’ ”

For what it’s worth, I also think the dollar is oversold and expect a correction to take hold at some point over the next month.

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June 11, 2011

Has the US Dollar Hit Bottom?

Filed under: US Dollar — Tags: , — admin @ 5:37 pm

In April, I declared that the dollar would rally when QE2 ended. That date – June 30 – is now only a few weeks away, which means it won’t be long before we know whether I was right. Meanwhile, the dollar is close to pre-credit crisis levels on a composite basis, and has already fallen to record lows against a handful of specific currencies. In other words, it’s now do-or-die for the dollar.


Since my last update, a number of things have happened. Commodity prices have continued to rise, and inflation has ticked up slightly. Meanwhile, GDP growth has moderated, the unemployment rate has stagnated at 9%, and the S&P has fallen slightly as investors brace for the possibility of an economic downturn. Finally, long-term interest rates have fallen, despite concerns that the US will be forced to breach the debt ceiling imposed by Congress.

From the standpoint of fundamentals, there is very little to get excited about when it comes to the dollar. While the US is likely to avoid a double-dip recession (the case for this was most convincingly made by TIME Magazine, of all sources), GDP growth is unlikely to rebound strongly. Exports are growing, but slowly. Businesses are investing (in machines, not people), but they are still holding record amounts of cash. Consumption is strong, but unsustainable. The government will do what it can to keep spending, but given that the deficit is projected at 10% of GDP in 2011 and that Congress is playing hardball with the debt ceiling, it can’t be expected to provide the engine of growth.

Meanwhile, Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the Fed, has implied that QE2 will not be followed by QE3. Still, he warned that “economic conditions are likely to warrant exceptionally low levels for the federal-funds rate for an extended period.” With low growth, high unemployment, and low inflation, there isn’t any impetus to even think about raising interest rates. In fact, Bernanke and his cohorts will continue to do everything in their power to hold down the dollar, if only to provide a boost to exports. Bill Dudley, head of the New York Fed, intimated in a recent speech that the Fed’s current monetary policy is basically a response to emerging market economies’ failure to allow their currencies to rise.

In short, if I was arguing that fundamentals would provide the basis for renewed dollar strength, I would have a pretty weak case. As I wrote a few weeks ago, however, there is a wrinkle to this story, in the form of risk. You see- the dollar continues to derive some significant support from risk-averse investors, as evidenced by the fact that Treasury yields have fallen to record lows.


Ironically, demand for the US dollar is inversely proportional to the strength of US fundamentals. As the US economy has rebounded, investors have become more comfortable about risk, and have responded by unloading safe haven positions in the dollar. With the US recovery faltering, investors are slowly moving back into the dollar, re-establishing safe haven positions. While the dollar faces some competition in this regard from the Franc and the Yen, it still compares favorably with the euro and pound.

In fact, some traders are betting that the dollar’s fortunes may be about to reverse. It has fallen 15% over the last year, en route to a 3-year low. With short positions so high, it would only take a minor crisis to trigger a short squeeze. Said the CEO of the world’s largest forex hedge fund (John Taylor of FX Concepts): “We see a big upside USD catalyst in the next ’3 or 4 days’ on the grounds that…’Our analysis of the markets has shown that they are very, very dangerous.’ ”

For what it’s worth, I also think the dollar is oversold and expect a correction to take hold at some point over the next month.

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June 6, 2011

How to Trade the Franc-Yen-Dollar Correlation

Filed under: US Dollar — Tags: , , — admin @ 5:17 pm

Last week, the Wall Street Journal published an article entitled, “Currency Correlations Lose Their Way for Now.” My response: It depends on which currencies you’re looking at. I, too, recently posted about the break-down of multi-year correlations, specifically involving the Australian Dollar and the New Zealand Dollar. However, one has to look no further than the Swiss Franc to see that in fact currency correlations are not only extant, but flourishing!

I stumbled upon this correlation inadvertently, with the intention (call it a twisted hobby…) of refuting the crux of the WSJ article, which is that “Standard relationships between risk appetite and safe havens, and yields and risky assets, are lost as investors appear to scramble in their efforts to adapt to a new direction.” Basically, the author asserted that forex traders are searching for guidance amidst conflicting signals, but this has caused the three traditional safe haven currencies to behave erratically: apparently, the Franc has soared, the Yen has crashed, and the US Dollar has stagnated.


I pulled up a one-year chart of the CHFUSD and the CHFJPY in order to confirm that this was indeed the case. As you can see from the chart above, it most certainly is not. With scant exception, the Swiss Franc’s rise against both the US Dollar and the Japanese Yen has been both consistent and dependable. The only reason that there is any gap between the two pairs is because the Yen has outperformed the dollar over the same time period. If you shorten the time frame to six months or less, the two pairs come very close to complete convergence.

In order to provide more support for this observation, I turned to the currency correlations page of Mataf.net (the founder of which I interviewed only last month). Sure enough, there is a current weekly correlation of 93% [it is displayed as negative below because of the way the currencies are ordered] between the CHFUSD and the CHFJPY, which is to say that the two are almost perfectly correlated. (Incidentally, the correlation coefficient between the USDCHF and the USDJPY is a solid 81%, which shows that relative to the Dollar, the Yen and Franc are highly correlated). Moreover, if Mataf.net offered correlation data based on monthly fluctuations, my guess it that the correlations would be even tighter. In any event, you can see from the chart that even the weekly correlation has been quite strong for most of the weeks over the last year.


The first question most traders will invariably ask is, “Why is this the case?” What is causing this correlation? In a nutshell, the answer is that the WSJ is wrong. As I wrote last month, the safe haven trade is alive and well. Otherwise, why would two currencies as disparate as the Franc and the Yen (whose economic, fiscal, and monetary situations couldn’t be more different) be moving in tandem? The fact that they are highly correlated shows that regardless of whether they are rising or falling is less noteworthy than the fact that they tend to rise and fall together. Generally speaking, when there is aversion to risk, both rise. When there is appetite for risk, they both fall.

The superseding question is, “What should I do with this information?” Here’s an idea: how about using this correlation for diversification purposes? In other words, if you were to make a bet on risk aversion, for example, why not sell both the USDJPY as well as the USDCHF? In this way, you can trade this idea without putting all of your eggs in one basket. If risk aversion picks up, but Japan defaults on its debt (an extreme possibility, but you see my point), you would certainly do better than if you had only sold the USDJPY. The same goes for making a bet on the Franc. Whether you believe it will continue rising or instead suffer a correction, you can limit your exposure to counter currency (i.e. the dollar and yen) risk by trading two (or more) correlated pairs simultaneously.

In the end, just knowing that the correlation exists is often enough because of what it tells you about the mindset of investors.  In this case, it is just more proof that they remain heavily fixated on the idea of risk.

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May 23, 2011

Risk Still Dominates Forex. The Dollar as “Safe Haven” is Back!

Filed under: US Dollar — Tags: , , , , , , , — admin @ 5:15 pm

Well over two years have passed since the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the accompanying climax of the credit crisis. Most economies have emerged from recession, stocks have recovered, credit markets are strong, and commodities prices are well on their way to new record highs. And yet, even the most cursory scanning of headlines reveals that all is not well in forex markets. Hardly a week goes by without a report of “risk averse” investors flocking to “safe haven” currencies.

As you can see from the chart below, forex volatility has risen steadily since the Japanese earthquake/tsunami in March. Ignoring the spike of the day (clearly visible in the chart), volatility is nearing a 2011 high.What’s driving this trend? Bank of America Merrill Lynch calls it the “known unknown.” In a word: uncertainty. Fiscal pressures are mounting across the G7. The Eurozone’s woes are certainly the most pressing, but that doesn’t mean the debt situation in the US, UK, and Japan are any less serious. There is also general economic uncertainty, over whether economic recovery can be sustained, or whether it will flag in the absence of government or monetary stimulus. Speaking of which, investors are struggling to get a grip on how the end of quantitative easing will impact exchange rates, and when and to what extent central banks will have to raise interest rates. Commodity prices and too much cash in the system are driving price inflation, and it’s unclear how long the Fed, ECB, etc. will continue to play chicken with monetary policy.

Every time doubt is cast into the system – whether from a natural disaster, monetary press release, surprise economic indicator, ratings downgrade – investors have been quick to flock back into so-called safe haven currencies, showing that appearances aside, they are still relatively on edge. Even the flipside of this phenomenon – risk appetite – is really just another manifestation of risk aversion. In other words, if traders weren’t still so nervous about the prospect of another crisis, they would have no reasons to constantly tweak their risk exposure and reevaluate their appetite for risk.

Over the last few weeks, the US dollar has been reborn as a preeminent safe haven currency, having previously surrendered that role to the Swiss Franc and Japanese Yen. Both of these currencies have already touched record highs against the dollar in 2011. For all of the concern over quantitative easing and runaway inflation and low interest rates and surging national debt and economic stagnation and high unemployment (and the list certainly goes on…), the dollar is still the go-to currency in times of serious risk aversion. Its capital markets are still the deepest and broadest, and the indestructible Treasury security is still the world’s most secure and liquid investment asset. When the Fed ceases its purchases of Treasuries (in June), US long-term rates should rise, further entrenching the dollar’s safe haven status. In fact, the size of US capital markets is a double-edge sword; since the US is able to absorb many times as much risk-averse capital as Japan (and especially Switzerland, sudden jumps in the dollar due to risk aversion will always be understated compared to the franc and yen.

On the other side of this equation stands virtually every other currency: commodity currencies, emerging market currencies, and the British pound and euro. When safe haven currencies go up (because of risk aversion), other currencies will typically fall, though some currencies will certainly be impacted more than others. The highest-yielding currencies, for example, are typically bought on that basis, and not necessarily for fundamental reasons. (The Australian Dollar and Brazilian Real are somewhere in between, featuring good fundamentals and high short-term interest rates). As volatility is the sworn enemy of the carry trade, these currencies are usually the first to fall when the markets are gripped by a bout of risk aversion.

Of course, it’s nearly impossible to anticipate ebbs and flows in risk appetite. Still, just being aware how these fluctuations will manifest themselves in forex markets means that you will be a step ahead when they take place.

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April 4, 2011

Fed Mulls End to Easy Money

Filed under: US Dollar — Tags: , , — admin @ 5:17 pm

Forex traders have very suddenly tilted their collective focus towards interest rate differentials. Given that the Dollar is once again in a state of free fall, it seems the consensus is that the Fed will be the last among the majors to hike rates. As I’ll explain below, however, there are a number of reasons why this might not be the case.

First of all, the economic recovery is gathering momentum. According to a Bloomberg News poll, “The US economy is forecast to expand at a 3.4 percent rate this quarter and 3.3 percent rate in the second quarter.” More importantly, the unemployment rate has finally begun to tick down, and recently touched an 18-month low. While it’s not clear whether this represents a bona fide increase in employment or merely job-hunting fatigue among the unemployed, it nonetheless will directly feed into the Fed’s decision-making process.

In fact, the Fed made such an observation in its March 15 FOMC monetary policy statement, though it prefaced this with a warning about the weak housing market. Similarly, it noted that a stronger economy combined with rising commodity prices could feed into inflation, but this too, it tempered with the dovish remark that “measures of underlying inflation continue to be somewhat low.” As such, it warned of “exceptionally low levels for the federal funds rate for an extended period.”

To be sure, interest rate futures reflect a 0% likelihood of any rate hikes in the next 6 months. In fact, there is a 33% chance that the Fed will hike before the end of the year, and only a 75% chance of a 25 basis point rise in January of 2012. On the other hand, some of the Fed Governors are starting to take more hawkish positions in the media about the prospect of rate hikes: “Minneapolis Federal Reserve President Narayana Kocherlakota said rates should rise by up to 75 basis points by year-end if core inflation and economic growth picked up as he expected.” Given that he is a voting member of the FOMC, this should not be written off as idle talk.

Meanwhile, Saint Louis Fed President James Bullard has urged the Fed to end its QE2 program, and he isn’t alone. “Philadelphia Fed President Charles Plosner and Richmond Fed President Jeffrey Lacker have also urged a review of the purchases in light of a strengthening economy and concern over future inflation.” While the FOMC voted in March to “maintain its existing policy of reinvesting principal payments from its securities holdings and…purchase $600 billion of longer-term Treasury securities by the end of the second quarter of 2011,” it has yet to reiterate this position in light of these recent comments to the contrary, and investors have taken notice.

Assumptions will probably be revised further following tomorrow’s release of the minutes from the March meeting, though investors will probably have to wait until April 27 for any substantive developments. The FOMC statement from that meeting will be scrutinized closely for any subtle tweaks in wording.

Ultimately, the take-away from all of this is that this record period of easy money will soon come to an end. Whether this year or the next, the Fed is finally going to put some monetary muscle behind the Dollar.

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