Posts tagged ‘currency’

FX, the Carry Trade, and Arbitrage Vigilantes

What do you think of the Euro? How about the Japanese yen? Are you expecting the Thai baht to depreciate in value versus the Brazilian real? Speculators, central banks, corporations, governments, financial institutions, and other constituencies ask similar types of questions every day. The largely over-the-counter global foreign exchange markets (no central exchange) are ubiquitous, measuring in the trillions – the BIS (Bank for International Settlements) computed the value of traditional foreign exchange markets at $3.2 trillion in April 2007. Thanks to globalization, these numbers are poised to expand even further. Like other futures markets (think oil, gold, or pork bellies), traders can speculate on the direction of one currency versus another. Alternatively, investors and businesses around the world can use currency futures to hedge (protect) or facilitate international trade.

Without getting lost in the minutiae of foreign exchange currency trading, I think it’s helpful to step back and realize regardless of strategy, currency, interest rate, inflation, peg-ratio, deficits, sovereign debt, or other factor, money will eventually migrate to where it is treated best in the long-run. When it comes to currencies, it’s my fundamental belief that economies control their currency destinies based on the collective monetary, fiscal, and political decisions made by each country. If those decisions are determined imprudent by financial market participants, countries open themselves up to speculators and investors exploiting those decisions for profits.

Currency Trading Ice Cream Style

As mentioned previously, currency trading is predominantly conducted over-the-counter, outside an exchange, but there are almost more trading flavors than ice cream choices at Baskin-Robbins. For instance, one can trade currencies by using futures, options, swaps, exchange traded funds (ETFs), or trading on the spot or forward contract markets. Each flavor has its own unique trading aspects, including the all-important amount of leverage employed.

The Carry Trade

Similar to other investment strategies (for example real estate), if profit can be made by betting on the direction of currencies, then why not enhance those returns by adding leverage (debt). A simple example of a carry trade can illustrate how debt is capable of boosting returns. Suppose hedge fund XYZ wants to borrow (sell U.S. dollars) at 0.25% and buy the Swedish krona currency so they can invest that currency in 5.00% Swedish government bonds. Presumably, the hedge fund will eventually realize the spread of +4.75% (5.00% – 0.25%) and with 10x leverage (borrowings) the amplified return could reach +47.5%, assuming the relationship between the U.S. dollar and krona does not change (a significant assumption).

Positive absolute returns can draw large pools of capital and can amplify volatility when a specific trade is unwound. For example, in recent years, the carry trade from borrowing Japanese yen and investing in the Icelandic krona eventually led to a sharp unwinding in the krona currency positions when the Icelandic economy collapsed in 2008. High currency values make exports less competitive and more expensive, thereby dampening GDP (Gross Domestic Product) growth. On the flip side, higher currency values make imported goods and services that much more affordable – a positive factor for consumers. Adding complexity to foreign exchange markets are the countries, like China, that artificially inflate or depress currencies by “pegging” their currency value to a foreign currency (like the U.S. dollar).

Soros & Arbitrage Vigilantes

Hedge funds, proprietary trading desks, speculators and other foreign exchange participants continually comb the globe for dislocations and discrepancies to take advantage of. Traders are constantly on the look out for arbitraging opportunities (simultaneously selling the weakest and buying the strongest). Famous Quantum hedge fund manager, George Soros, took advantage of weak U.K. economy in 1992 when he spent $10 billion in bet against the British pound (see other Soros article). The Bank of England fought hard to defend the value of the pound in an attempt to maintain a pegged value against a basket of European currencies, but in the end, because of the weak financial condition of the British economy, Soros came out victorious with an estimated $1 billion in profits from his bold bet. 

I’m not sure whether the debate over speculator involvement in currency collapses can be resolved? What I do know is the healthier economies making prudent monetary, fiscal, and political decisions will be more resilient in protecting themselves from arbitrage vigilantes.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at time of publishing had no direct position on any security referenced. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

March 8, 2010 at 12:01 am Leave a comment

Money Goes Where Treated Best

“The world is going to hell in a handbasket” seems to be a prevailing sentiment among many investors. Looking back, a lack of fiscal leadership in Washington, coupled with historically high unemployment, has only fanned the flames of restlessness. A day can hardly go by without hearing about some fiscal problem occurring somewhere around the globe. Geographies have ranged from Iceland to Dubai, and California to Greece. Regardless, eventually voters force politicians to take notice, as we recently experienced in the Massachusetts vote for Senator.

Time to Panic?

So is now the time to panic?  Entitlement obligations such as Social Security and Medicare, when matched with a rising interest payment burden from our ballooning debt, stands to consume the vast majority of our country’s revenues in the coming decades (if changes are not made).  It’s clear to most that the current debt trajectory is not sustainable – see also Debt: The New Four-Letter Word. With that said, historical debt levels have actually been at higher levels before. For example, during World War II, debt levels reached 122% of GDP (Gross Domestic Product). Since promises generally garner votes, politicians have traditionally found it easier to legislate new spending into law rather than cutting back existing spending and benefits.

Money Goes Where it’s Treated Best

If our government leaders choose to ignore the growing upswell in fiscal discontent, then the global financial markets will pay more attention and disapprove less diplomatically. As the globe’s reserve currency, the U.S. Dollar stands to collapse if a different direction is not forged, and interest costs could skyrocket to unpalatable levels.  Fortunately, the flat world we live on has created some of these naturally occurring governors to forcibly direct sovereign entities to make better decisions…or suffer the consequences. Right now Greece is paying for the financial sins of its past, which includes widening deficits and untenable debt levels.

As new, growing powers such as China, Brazil, India, and other emerging countries fight for precious capital to feed the aspirational goals of their rising middle classes, money will migrate to where it is treated best. Speculative money will flow in and out of various capital markets in the short-run, but ultimately capital flows where it is treated best. Meaning, those countries with policies fostering fiscal conservatism, financial transparency, prudent regulations, pro-growth initiatives, tax incentives, order of law, and other capital-friendly guidelines will enjoy their fair share of the spoils. The New York Times editorial journalist Tom Friedman coined the term “golden straitjacket” in describing this naturally occurring restraint system as a result of globalization.

Push Comes to Shove

Push will eventually come to shove, but the real question is whether we will self-impose fiscal restraint on ourselves, or will the global capital markets shove us in that direction, like the markets are doing to Greece (and other financially strapped nations) today? I am hopeful it will be the former. Why am I optimistic? Although more government spending has typically lead to more votes for politicians, cracks in the support wall have surfaced through the Massachusetts Senatorial vote, and rising populist sentiment, as manifested through the “Tea Party” movement (previously considered a fringe group). 

Political gridlock has traditionally been par for the course, but crisis usually leads to action, so I eventually expect change. I am banking on the poisonous and sour mood permeating through the country’s voter base, in conjunction with the collapse of foreign currencies, to act as a catalyst for financial reform. If not, resident capital and domestic jobs will exodus to other countries, where they will be treated best.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds (including emerging market-based ETFs), but at time of publishing had no direct positions in securities mentioned in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

February 16, 2010 at 11:30 pm Leave a comment

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