Tag Archives: FX / Interest rates

Twas the Night Before Taper: A Wall Street Holiday Poem

After several months of silence, Mustafa Mond, whom we last heard from in April, has resurfaced. Today, Mr. Mond offers us this holiday poem:

TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE TAPER

By Mustafa Mond

Twas the night before Taper, when all through the Street
Not a whale was stirring, not even a veep.
The earnings were prepped by accountants with care,
In hopes that bonuses would be much more than fair.

The bankers were settled all smug in their spreads,
While Fed interventions entranced all their heads.
And Barack with his selfie, and Michelle with hers too,
Readjusted their cameras to spy just on you.

When out in the markets there arose such a cry,
Barry sprang from West Wing to see what was nigh.
To the news wires he flew like a bat of hell,
Knowing hestill had the masses to quell.

Markets were speeding, out of control,
The VIX off the charts—who spiked the punch bowl?
When, what to his wondering eyes should appear,
But a great big helicopter with pallets in the rear!

With an exhausted driver, tired of dollar-yen,
And a new co-pilot, it must be St. Ben.
Faster than a flash crash his beneficiaries came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name!

“Now Blankfein! Now Dimon! Wells Fargo and Citi!
On Gorman! On Moynihan! NYSE and BONY!
To the highest of highs! ‘Til market bears have fled!
After all, in the long run, we’ll all be dead!”

The yield-hungry traders scrambled for carry,
Locking in profits before the curves vary.
And up to the market-top prices arose,
While Barack’s disapproval relentlessly grows.

And then, with the microphones set to full blast,
The media watched carefully for any contrast.
Trading floors went silent, as they are apt to do,
As Fed chairman testimony makes sense to so few.

He spoke all in jargon, acronyms and indices,
Durables and deficits and payrolls and factories.
A big pile of assets he still wants to backstop:
A mortgage, a bankruptcy, a credit default swap.

His data—how thorough! Statistics—such authority!
And his protégé, this Yellen, confirmed with a majority!
His post-Fed retirement expectantly awaits,
No doubt duly hedged for much higher interest rates.

Europe and China, oil exporters like Canada,
The Saudis and Russia, and fiefdoms like Panama,
Listened closely for signs of any new shocks,
But at least they have product–unlike tech stocks!

He was measured, cogent, lacking Greenspan’s grandiloquence,
But the reaction, as always, was irrational exuberance,
As he made quite clear that ZIRP would continue,
And Wall Street rejoiced–“to the discount window!”

Thus ended St. Ben’s last public report
As chairman of the lender of last resort:
Tapering delayed, until 2014,
When St. Ben will no doubt be far from the scene.

He sprang to his chopper, having completed his duties,
Leaving risks to be rated by S&P, Fitch and Moody’s.
And on his way out, they asked, “what of safety nets?”
He cried, “Happy Holidays! And good luck with your debts!”

MustafaMond.signature

Markets irrational longer than you remain solvent, exhibit #274

2013.12.Irrational markets

Source: Russell Investments

There’s an article out on Seeking Alpha yesterday, called “Manufacturing Growth and Capital are Moving from China to Mexico“, nominally about the Mexico-China relationship to the US, but also more broadly (in my interpretation) about how we react to and measure growth in developing economies.

The key thesis here has to do with the spillover effects of China’s decelerating growth and who will pick up the slack. This may not necessarily be an exact zero-sum game, but it is to a certain extent, at least as long as Americans are still gaming, eating, drinking, driving and whatever else they demand to do, and as long as China and Mexico remain the second and third biggest trading partners of the US.

That Mexico will pick up some of this slack is a foregone conclusion. But just how much it benefits is what remains to be seen, and at least among its boosters, is what drives all this excitement we’ve been seeing about Mexico ever since the current administration was elected. Specific to this article, which was written by an equity analyst out of California called Erik Gholtoghian, the currency deficit between Mexico and China is particularly telling:

“…the Mexican peso has weakened dramatically against the dollar since 1990, almost 80%, and the peso is down 2.44% against the dollar over the past year. In other words, the Chinese yuan has strengthened 34% against the dollar since the revaluation began in 2006, but over the same time, the peso has weakened 20% against the dollar. This means the yuan is 54% stronger against the peso just over the past seven years. The result will be greatly decreasing exports from China to Mexico and increased exports from Mexico to China.”

All fine and good, but there’s something missing here and after discussing this with some folks I know around Mexico City, it strikes me that this is partly about Mexico but also about how to approach investment prospects for many emerging and frontier market countries.

I’ll begin with a basic metaphor to illustrate what I’m thinking of here. When you jump up in the air, how can you remain airborne as long as you do? Gravity should theoretically pull you back to earth, and in fact it eventually does. But there is a brief moment when you can defy the theory of gravity, due to the relationship between your body’s mass, your muscle strength and the actual gravitational force of the earth.

In the case of Mexico, economic reality has been suspended in this theory-defying space for a few years now and it’s a matter of time before indicators on the ground (no pun intended) reflect a closing of this gap. Think of it as the reverse situation of the dotcom bubble or the real estate bubble. This is the basis for value investing (as opposed to speculative investing) and at a bird’s eye level is no different from the approach Warren Buffet uses in evaluating stocks. Company ABC has low costs, stable contracts with a diversified customer base, competitive quality products and whatever, they should be making X profits per year but they’re only making a fraction of that…therefore, buy.

Here’s another comparable situation: Billy Beane, he of Moneyball fame, used the same approach when he was managing the Oakland A’s baseball team in the early 2000s. He saw underpaid players who may not hit home runs and may even have crappy batting averages, but also never seem to strike out and wind up finding their way across home plate one way or another. He exploited this for as long as he could, until the rest of baseball caught on, copied it, and eliminated his advantage. By this metaphor, Mexico’s economy is slowly being recognized by the Billy Beanes of the investing world. The difference is that Billy Beane kept his mouth shut because he knew he was on to something. Meanwhile, these investing gurus can’t stop praising Mexico as the next big thing, partly because everyone else jumping on the bandwagon makes it a self-fulfilling prophecy (which is where the baseball comparison stops) and partly because the nature of today’s evolving media universe sort of demands everyone to stake his claim as an “expert” in something.

Another difference with the Mexico situation is that there are a lot more variables that could prevent the benefits of this growth from reaching ordinary Mexicans (corruption, red tape, narco, etc) and the persistent failure of commentators on Mexico to recognize the unpredictability and range of these other variables can appear very misleading. Sometimes this failure seems to be because the commentator in question is clueless/stupid/ignorant/etc. Sometimes it’s because they have a vested interest in a positive outcome and are therefore disinclined to (publicly) focus on downside risks (here’s one recent example of this).

There is also the perennial issue of timing, which is the great bugbear of economics and investing in general. Going back to the gravity metaphor, we can predict with decent accuracy how long you can stay airborne as a result of the very specific estimate of Earth’s gravitational force being 9.81 meters per second squared. One of the main reasons for this specificity is that Earth’s gravitational force is independent of human behavior. Mexico’s economy does not enjoy the same luxury for all of the previously mentioned reasons and more.

As John Keynes is supposed to have said, “Markets can remain irrational longer than you and I can remain solvent.”

Personally, I don’t believe anything – good or bad – until I see it.

An Apples-to-Apples Comparison of African Sovereign Debt

I’ve been meaning to do this for months now, and the FT’s Jonathan Wheatley has just done it for me. Herewith, a side-by-side comparison of 10-year African sovereign debt issues from the past 15 months:

Country Issue Date Tenor Size Yield at issue
Zambia Sep 2012 10 years $750 mm 5.625%
Rwanda Apr 2013 10 years $400 mm 6.875%
Nigeria July 2013 10 years $500 mm 6.625%
Ghana July 2013 10 years $750 mm 8.000%
Gabon Dec 2013 10 years $1.5 bn 6.375%

As Wheatley correctly points out, this is a Gabon story as much as it’s an Africa story. There are a lot of ways to slice this, the most immediate being yield differences. Wheatley:

Is Zambia, at 5.625 per cent (cheaper than Spain at the time), really in a different ball park from Ghana at 8 per cent? Yes and no. When Zambia came to market in September 2012, yields on US Treasuries were at their tightest and investors were scrambling for any deal that offered something better.

“There were opportunities to lock in great transactions,” says Samara. “But you still had to have a story to tell.”

Rwanda faced perhaps an even more inviting market, with investors getting so frustrated at low yields in the US they seemed willing to take almost any risk. Even in that environment, however, Rwanda had to pay a lot more than Zambia.

Nigeria and Ghana tell a similar tale of the post-tapering world: the decidedly less risk-on environment that followed comments in May by Ben Bernanke, chairman of the US Federal Reserve, suggesting the end of ultra-loose monetary policy was on the horizon. But Samara says that even in those more difficult circumstances, the right issuers have been able to get bonds away.

I would also point out the dramatic difference between these yields, and the indicative yields of their currencies at the beginning of this year, which I previously discussed here. Pasting those local currency yields into the above table gives us the following:

 

Country Issue Date Tenor Size Yield at issue Indicative FX yield as of Jan 2013
Zambia Sep 2012 10 years $750 mm 5.625% 9.80%
Rwanda Apr 2013 10 years $400 mm 6.875% 12.30%
Nigeria July 2013 10 years $500 mm 6.625% 14.40%
Ghana July 2013 10 years $750 mm 8.000% 22.90%
Gabon Dec 2013 10 years $1.5 bn 6.375% N/A

 

The debt yields are significantly lower than the FX yields reported in January (courtesy of Silk Invest). A lot has happened in the world this year to drive this divergence, but what this screams of more than anything to me is the benefit of borrowing dollars in the Eurobond market. 

Put another way, let’s use the example of Nigeria, which is far and away the largest economy of any of these. In an ideal world, an economy like Nigeria should be able to draw a far larger issue size than $500 million, and denominated in naira, but if they did, they would be paying much more than 6.625%. And even in dollars, the $500 million ticket size indicates that appetite is still fairly limited, despite all the currency risk being shifted onto Nigeria (which, having some 90+% of its economy dependent on oil, is less burdensome than the task facing, say, Rwanda).

I’m all for developing local currency financing mechanisms, but what this all says to me is that there’s still a VERY long way to go.

Irrational exuberance continues plaguing Bitcoin

2013.12.IgnoranceBank of America has now initiated coverage of bitcoin and puts a fair value price target at US$1,300, which depending on your view, either validates or discredits the digital currency. Personally, I have no skin in this game, I appreciate and am fascinated by the theoretical construct, but am put off by the breathlessly brainless hype surrounding it and one doesn’t have to look far to see bitcoin’s limitations.

With that said now, the BoA report link is here, and as far as I’m concerned, the most important stuff comes in at page 6, in the section entitled, “How to assess Bitcoin’s fair value?”

I admit up front I have yet to come up with a viable answer to this question, but if I may say so, I am expert at recognizing bullshit when I see it. And BoA analysts make what even they concede are very big assumptions here, but if you know the assumptions are “big” (read: unrealistic), then why bother going on about it in the first place?

Anyway, taking this piece by piece, some of the outlandish assumptions that lead to a “fair value” price of $1,300, as far as bitcoin’s value as a medium of exchange:

Given the assumption that Bitcoin will grow to account for the payment of 10% of all on-line shopping, this would suggest that US households would want to have a balance of $1bn worth of Bitcoins.

…given bitcoin’s famous finite supply cap at 21 million units, the math here isn’t quite doing it for me.

What about for the whole world? US GDP is about 20% of World GDP. If we were to assume the same degrees of penetration of e-commerce for the rest of the world and that spending by households outside the US has the same velocity, we get to $5bn worth of Bitcoins for the total desired cash/noncash balance of global on-line shopping.

…sure, but both of those assumptions are not just wrong but shockingly ignorant about how the world outside the United States operates. I don’t need to spell this one out further, do I?

In addition to its role as a mean for payment for on-line commerce, Bitcoin can be used for transfer of money (e.g. immigrant worker in the US sending remittances back home).

…the average immigrant worker in the US sending remittances back home is a) Latin American, and b) traditionally very distrustful of all financial mechanisms or intermediaries that are not cash; further, this average immigrant worker would require a level of facility with the internet that various studies simply do not bear out.

Western Union, MoneyGram, and Euronet are the three top players in the money transfer industry (with about 20% of the total market share). Let’s assume that Bitcoin becomes one of the top three players in this industry.

…actually, let’s not, for all kinds of practical reasons. See previous two rebuttals to begin with.

A thought just occurred to me: maybe this is a practical joke — like the Onion!

As far as bitcoin somehow serving as a store of value, the entire discussion here appears LSD-induced, with the following statement perhaps being the biggest whopper:

If we were to assume that Bitcoin were to eventually acquire the reputation of silver (which is an extremely ambitious assumption), this suggests that Bitcoin market capitalization for its role as a store of value could reach $5bn.

WHAT?

This is the metaphorical equivalent of saying that assuming gravity were one-tenth its current force, I could leap tall buildings in a single bound…and then going on to design a workout routine that does indeed involve me leaping tall buildings in a single bound.

Someone’s living in unreality and I’m pretty sure it’s not me. 

Fed tapering, Emerging Markets, Banxico

Thanks to Brent Donnelly from Nomura for this chart showing USDMXN vs 10-year US Treasuries since “tapering” became a new market watchword:

2013.09.20.USDMXN 10 year UST

So what? Here’s so what: For anyone who ever thought Videgaray, Carstens or whoever else had any sway, when push comes to shove, dollar-peso moves almost in lockstep with Fed expectations. Put another way, whenever Bernanke & Co. decide easy money is over and raise interest rates, expect the peso to go back above 13.0+ and stay there (possibly even 14). And if Carstens or whoever replaces him is smart, they’ll keep their hands off. Draw your own conclusions about what that means for Mexican inflation, TIIE, etc.

Chart of the Day : Triple Threat for Emerging Markets

Apologies to everyone for the radio silence, but I’ve been occupied with an ongoing project in Peru the past few months. In the meantime, Morgan Stanley just published this chart via Barron’s:

2013.08.19.Emerging Markets Triple Threat

Street Markets 101: On Money Laundering, Foreign Exchange and Counterfeit US Dollars

I’ll begin with the spoiler for those of you who should have been somewhere else five minutes ago:

The Mexican peso trades at a 50% discount on the streets of Peru and I believe this is somehow related to Peru being the top source of counterfeit U.S. dollars in the world.

That’s the basic thesis.

What is about to come next is a series of observations, some postulations, an educated guess or two, and a some rough idea of where to go next.

Contained nowhere in here is actual proof, in the Euclidean sense of the concept. But I’ll defend that by saying that what this brain dump is about is so off the radar that the only possible proof to have is to be an actual perpetrator. So, not being a perpetrator, what I can spell out here is my thought process, and I wholeheartedly welcome comment from anyone who can fill in any of the gaps I’ve left, or better yet, prove me wrong.

With that out of the way, let’s get to the data.

This whole idea began with a simple observation: upon landing in Lima’s airport, the first currency changers available—the ones you see before even clearing customs—offer to sell Peruvian soles in exchange for travelers’ American and Canadian dollars, Japanese yen, British pounds, euros, Swiss francs and Mexican pesos, quoted in terms of how many soles you can expect to receive per unit of your foreign currency. Considering that the first currency changers available upon landing at any airport anywhere in the world will never give the best exchange rate, the rates in Lima’s airport do not depart from current market rates as much as they could.

The single exception is the Mexican peso.

The number of Peruvian soles one can expect to receive per Mexican peso in the Lima airport is quoted as “0.1”. What does this mean?

To equate this to something understandable, we can use the old cross-canceling technique of multiplying fractions with different units. Here’s what happens when we do that:

1 Mexican peso            2.5 Peruvian soles           25 Mexican pesos
——————–         X    ———————-            =      ———————-
0.1 Peruvian soles        1 US dollar                       1 US dollar

Yes, you’re reading that correctly: that’s 25 Mexican pesos per dollar. Look up the going market rate for Mexican pesos, and you’ll see them trading, as of this writing, somewhere in the neighborhood of 12.3 to the dollar.

So, anyone landing in Lima wanting to change Mexican pesos for Peruvian soles at the airport will do so at an implied devaluation of the peso on the order of 50%.

Put another way: you’re going to spend twice as many Mexican pesos as you should to acquire Peruvian soles.

Granted, this is in the airport. Clearly the next step was to see if any casa de cambio in central Lima takes Mexican pesos. The answer to that question is yes, as should be expected of any fully convertible currency in world markets. The rate I was quoted at the casa de cambio around the corner from my hotel was 20 Mexican pesos per dollar. This is better than 25, but not by much; the implied devaluation here is still nearly approaching 40%.

Now, one could argue there is fault in my sample size, that the data only came from the Miraflores neighborhood, which skews it this way or that way…in short, there are always more data points to gather. But for these purposes, for what I’m trying to establish, I do not believe more evidence beyond the airport and the wealthiest neighborhood in Lima is going to materially alter the findings.

Meanwhile, changing US dollars on the street in Lima can be done for very little, if any divergence from the market rate. The single data point I have here—drawn from the casa de cambio that was willing to take 20 Mexican pesos per US dollar—was receiving 258 Peruvian soles for $100 on April 23, which, according to oanda, was exactly the market rate that day.

To further demonstrate the relative demand for US dollars in Peru, my hotel bill for a recent three-night stay there was quoted as payable with 1,386 soles or US$462, which implies a USDPEN rate of 3.0. Given the market rate of 2.58 Peruvian soles per dollar, this means the hotel was willing to devalue its own currency by 14%.

I don’t know if the hotel would have been willing to take Mexican pesos, but that’s unnecessary for a preliminary conclusion here. The 50% devaluation penalty for changing Mexican pesos in Peru is more than just statistically significant. It’s basically the Peruvian foreign exchange establishment saying, “You’re either stupid or a drug dealer.”

As it so happens, Peru is the largest producer of counterfeit US dollars in the world. Coincidence?

Suppose it is. An alternative conclusion here could be that the more convertible a country’s currency is on an international scale, the less it will charge you when you try changing more “exotic” currencies for the local money.

On that front, I’ve since checked so-called “street” FX rates for Mexican pesos in New York, London, Toronto and São Paulo. In every one of those markets, the implied USDMXN rate ranges from 13.0 to 14.5, with the 13.0 rate coming unexpectedly from Sao Paulo. That São Paulo’s rate for pesos is actually better than New York, Toronto or London kind of goes against any theory that greater convertibility reduces the peso spread.

Where this goes next:

It’s probably worth checking Mexican peso rates in Bogotá as another frame of reference, not just for another Latin American country, but another transit point of known narco-related money laundering in the hemisphere. I have no idea what to expect here but am looking into it.

Drunkeynesian, who aided me with the São Paulo data, additionally offers this comment:

“I like your thesis, and I would add to it a premium for the difficulty to convert Mexican pesos in another “liquid” currency. In a country where there are many Mexicans (or people traveling to Mexico), rates should be better, since if you’re a FX broker and you get some Mexican pesos you won’t have to wait long until you make some profit. If this is valid, this premium should grow with the local interest rate (to compensate for the opportunity cost).”

To be continued.

A Tale Of Two Bond Curves: Malaysia vs Indonesia

Thanks to Denise Law for drawing my attention to this…

Malaysia government bond yields fall post-elections:

Govt bond curve - Malaysia May 2013

While Indonesia government bond yields rise after S&P reduced its outlook on Indonesian credit from positive to stable:

Govt bond curve - Indonesia May 2013

Related reading: How Singapore’s currency club fell apart

How Much More Can Emerging Markets Debt Grow?

EM versus US High Yield Bonds riskLondon-based Clear Path Analysis has an excellent report detailing investment considerations for Emerging Markets debt and FX investing. So good, actually, that it’s forcing me to second-guess my previously held view that Emerging Markets debt is in a bubble approaching crisis proportions. It’s a long-ish report (32 pages) and it’s all important, so let’s get straight to some of the notable commentary they’ve put together. I think these quotes really speak for themselves.

Gregoire Haenni, Chief Investment Officer, CERN Pension Fund, on why Asia has and will continue leading EMs:

One of the main reasons why investors are beginning to allocate into EM is because of the Asian sovereign credit re-rating trend. Asian sovereign credit fundamentals have generally been on the up for the last six years which is in contrast to other developed countries. The fiscal discipline and underlying economy growth has capped government debt to GDP without exceptions and trade surpluses over the past decade have resulted in a build up of foreign exchange reserves.
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Plain English: China’s Cash Stash

2013.04.11.China FX ReservesThis little quip from the FT about China’s rising FX reserves made me stop in my tracks:

“Reserves jumped $130bn to $3.44tn – roughly equivalent to the size of the German economy…”

Really?

Yes. Really. You can look it up here.

This now raises some other basic questions: what else is worth $3.4 trillion? Or: what could China buy with that kind of money? How else can we even conceptualize this number?

In the spirit of my previous conceptualization of Facebook’s $100 billion IPO, here are some other ways to conceptualize $3.4 trillion:

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What Central Bank FX Reserves Really Tell Us

The New York Fed has just published what is absolutely mandatory reading for anyone with a stake in the foreign exchange market. It’s a 10-page pdf entitled, “Do Industrialized Countries Hold the Right Foreign Exchange Reserves?” and is one of those rare documents whose entire text is quotable, making excerpting rather difficult, but I’ll try to keep it short. The abstract provides a pretty good summary:

That central banks should hold foreign currency reserves is a key tenet of the post–Bretton Woods international financial order. But recent growth in the reserve balances of industrialized countries raises questions about what level and composition of reserves are “right” for these countries. A look at the rationale for reserves and the reserve practices of select countries suggests that large balances may not be needed to maintain an effective exchange rate policy over the medium and long term. Moreover, countries may incur an opportunity cost by holding funds in currency and asset portfolios that, while highly liquid, produce relatively low rates of return.

And this, from the opening paragraph, is also worth drawing attention to:

To date, the foreign exchange reserves of major industrialized economies have received relatively little attention in public policy circles, with few questions posed regarding their optimal size, composition, and use. Instead, discussion of foreign exchange reserves tends to center on the large holdings of emerging market countries—including China, whose reserves reached about $3 trillion in mid-2012. Foreign currency reserves are also overshadowed in public discussion by the much larger external imbalances that countries amass in the form of trade deficits and surpluses.

The key element here is that this paper only looks at the US, the UK, Switzerland, Japan, Canada, and the euro area, and rightly so as these are the big fish of the global FX market. The brief mention of emerging market countries’ holdings highlights what’s implied in the debate but rarely stated explicitly, so allow me to do so now:

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Charts Of The Day: The Bitcoin-Argentina Connection

On increasing chatter I’ve been hearing about bitcoin, pending devaluation in Argentina and the possible use of bitcoin to circumvent capital controls in Argentina, I had to look at the data.

Bitcoin, for those who aren’t aware, is a virtual currency that exists solely online (I have one previous discussion of it here). I’m not going to put up any links on its origins here because you can honestly just google it and find more than enough info, but the Wikipedia page gives a decent unbiased explanation.

And the operative word in that previous sentence is “unbiased”. Because there’s a rising political element to bitcoin that I really don’t want to get into, but to sum it up, there is a palpable libertarian bent to its propagation if you can sift through all the hype and speculation, good and bad, about its use.

Personally, I think it’s an interesting experiment and am wholly agnostic about its success or legitimacy, but love seeing regulators squirm at the implications of it. To borrow from former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the “unknown unknowns” here are nothing less than staggering.

Actually, here is an interesting profile of bitcoin’s user base for those of you already familiar with it.

And for those of you ready for the advanced class, this is a handy diagram:

2013.03.27.How a bitcoin transaction works

Anyway, on to the data.

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Plain English: Some Thoughts On Bernanke’s LSE Speech

2013.03.26.Bernanke Plain English-helicopter benBernanke gave a speech at the London School of Economics yesterday which is grabbing a lot of attention. Those who have heard or read some of his other non-Fed public lectures over the past few years will recognize that he spent about half of it reviewing some of his favorite historical lessons, mostly sourced from his pre-Fed academic work. But there were some new statements to add to this mix. My interpretation of some of the key themes:

  • The current financial crisis is in fact a classic panic: a systemwide run of “hot money” away from assets whose values suddenly became uncertain.
  • That said, there were some different bells and whistles this time, notably the introduction of new financial instruments, more varied actors beyond just banks and (in my opinion) most vitally, a scale and complexity altogether new.
  • Currency war, which Bernanke chooses to refer to as, “competitive depreciation of exchange rates”, is similarly not new.
  • The accommodative monetary policies central banks around the world have been implementing (read: zero interest rate policy) to support growth do not constitute competitive devaluations, currency wars or whatever term you prefer. The primary reason for this is that domestic demand counts for a lot more than exchange rate meddling and in any event when competitive economies both devalue their currencies, whatever effects result from these devaluations effectively cancel each other out.

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How Oil Divides The Economies Of Africa Into Winners And Losers

I can’t get this article from the FT’s William Wallis out of my head. The headline is “Currencies pressed by trade imbalances” but this really only captures a small slice of the picture. Check it out:

With import demand outstripping export growth in some of the continent’s fastest expanding economies, rising trade imbalances are putting pressure on currencies. African and international investors hedge against this by spreading risk – one factor that is driving African banks and businesses across borders.

But even an expansive footprint is not always enough. MTN, the continent’s leading telecoms provider with a presence in 21 African countries, announced that currency swings had weighed heavily on its earnings.

More broadly says Razia Khan, head of Africa research at Standard Chartered Bank, widening current account deficits are the result of an investment and consumption boom, new resource exploration activity and “the scaling up of output”. Ghana fits into this category. It is also on the risk radar this year as heavy investment in oil and gas infrastructure continues, with only modest increases forecast for oil output.

A weak currency does not help those African countries with limited capacity to ramp up exports in response. Kenya cannot for example suddenly double tea production. So, it is forced to defend its currency to avert importing inflation.

Loose monetary policy in major developed economies has driven a rush of short-term funds into African markets. David Cowan, Africa economist at Citibank, says the way in which central banks defend their currencies and the margins that foreign investors earn will be one determining factor in how long the appetite endures.

I don’t disagree with any of this but would point out that this is all just the tip of the iceberg and there are a lot of ways to slice this.

One is that just six of Africa’s 53 countries account for two-thirds of the entirety of Africa’s $2.0 trillion economy. In descending order of nominal GDP: South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, Algeria, Angola and Morocco. I think a pie chart best demonstrates this relationship:

2013.03.20.Africa 2013 GDP composition

Another is to think about how much of Africa’s total economy is driven by oil exports. Let’s try the following table to demonstrate this:

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Che Misterio On Argentina’s Summer Of Discontent

2012.10.18.Che MisterioLadies and Gentlemen, Che Misterio:

Argentina Lumbers On

By Che Misterio

Evidence mounts that Argentines will do whatever possible to leave the country and earn in hard-currency – even head the Catholic Church, if necessary.

As is customary when a financial crisis looms in this country, the government ups the rhetoric regarding the Falklands. The day before Bergoglio was elected Pope, a referendum on the Falklands could hardly have been clearer: of 1,518 votes cast, 1,513 voted in favor of remaining British, 2 were unable to successfully fill out what could not have been a particularly complex voting slip, and 3 voted in favor of becoming Argentine. Who were those three? I’d love to meet them. I barely follow British politics and the entire EU seems to be in a mess currently, but really – would anyone actually choose to be governed by the Kirchner government if they had a choice?

Argentina’s problems would apparently vanish if only they had those scraps of land some 500km off the coast, despite most of Patagonia remaining a vast unexploited expanse of nothingness. Sure, the islands are financially self-sufficient and they boast an enviably high GDP per capita which exceeds even that of Norway, with full-employment. But would this continue under Argentine management? The rest of the country’s economic performance does is not reassuring.

If a referendum were to be conducted today in Argentina asking voters to choose between being governed by the current Kirchner government or the British, I wonder if it would be quite as overwhelming as the 99.8% seen on the Islands?

Meanwhile, the US dollar hit a new landmark – 8 to 1 on the black market. In fact, I am not sure it can really be called the black market, as barely anyone is using the other market, which still doggedly insists the rate is a smidge more than 5 to 1. Admittedly almost no one is allowed to buy dollars at this rate, and no one remotely astute is selling at this rate, so there’s little harm fabricating the rate for a non-existent market.

The state petrol supplier, YPF, seems to prefer cash, as the debit and credit card machines seem perpetually “out of order”. Even the airlines now accept cash. Flights are actually quite cheap for those with dollars able to pay in pesos via a quick visit to the money-changer. A recent article suggests US$1 million a day is fleeing across the border to Uruguay, and there are no more safety deposit boxes left in Colonia, just across the river from Buenos Aires.

Rumors of an imminent devaluation appear unfounded. Kirchner’s new BFF, Deputy Economy Minister Axel Kicillof, is said to be flirting with the idea of multiple exchange rates, another tried, tested and doomed strategy to manage (or manipulate) a currency. Inflation continues its relentless erosion of value for all local currency assets, with the exception of four supermarkets who have been enjoying price controls, a privilege which will end in April. Watch for a surge in purchases on April 30th and a spike in prices on May 1st.

Supermarket trolley-arbitrage: only in Argentina.

[Ed. note: You’ll notice a new tag, entitled, “Guest Writing.” Here is where you’ll find all guest articles.]

The Carry Trade Is Not Dead – It’s Just Evolved

My Seeking Alpha article last week on the Mexican peso’s post-rate cut rally prompted this response by a reader:

“Capturing the interest rate differencials across currencies used to be an fx trade, but global monetary accomodative policy has taken the juice out of the carry trade for fx traders. The carry trade has increasingly become a fixed income trade where real money has more tolerance for fx volatility in order to capture higher global yields. To that extent, currencies will in fact benefit where there is a belief that local rates are too high.

I don’t expect further rate cuts, Ulysses. I think the 50bp was an attempt at normalization, perhaps partially due to the increase in real money flows into Mexico that were screaming that rates were too high. The irony that you point out about a stronger peso can probably be attributed as much to the ratings upgrade and correlation with a recovering US dollar. Mexico’s reputation for strong policymakers as well as the convergence of business cycles with the USA, makes it a good laggard candidate to get some beta on the USA. That said, it’s a bit overbought and needs to consolidate if it is going to push much lower.”

To the extent that the Mexico exchange-traded fund, which goes by the ticker EWW, correlates with the peso, it looks like this overbuying has already been priced in. Whether looking at this in terms of absolute price or in terms of returns, the March 8 rate cut coincided with a brief bump in the EWW price which has now reversed course, while the peso remains up. This gap will have to close at some point. The question is when:

2013.03.18.MXN EWW YTD price

 

2013.03.18.MXN EWW YTD percent

And here’s what the EWW vs. peso relationship looks like over the past year:

2013.03.18.MXN EWW 1 year

Is Asia’s Foreign Exchange NDF Market The Next Domino To Fall?

2013.03.15.ASEAN mapThat’s the basic question I take away from this recent article from the FT’s Jeremy Grant, which uses a wrongful dismissal lawsuit ex-UBS traders are bringing against their former employer as a gateway to discussing price transparency in the Asian non-deliverable FX market.

The important bit doesn’t come until the second half of the article:

“Quite how this “shadow” fixing system has emerged in Singapore, alongside the official rates set by southeast Asian central banks, is a bit of a mystery. Bankers say it was because traders didn’t historically trust the onshore fixing. It is easy to forget the depth of anti-market feeling in Malaysia during the Asian crisis.”

Actually, how it emerged in Singapore was rather straightforward. Continue reading

The Carry Trade Is Dead. Long Live The Carry Trade.

2013.03.13.USD MXN BRL Carry TradeMy latest Seeking Alpha article is out, in which I try to make sense of why the Mexican peso is strengthening on the heels of an interest rate cut by the Bank of Mexico on Friday. And the short answer is that the carry trade is dead. Read the rest here, but what I can add to this argument is actually something that I’m surprised nobody has taken me task for in the comments section yet and that is this: the carry trade isn’t entirely dead. Brazil is in all likelihood about to raise rates again and the expectation is that this is going to strengthen the real.

Which raises the next question: Why is the Mexican peso resorting to the theory of interest rate parity while the Brazilian real is is adhering to the anti-theory of interest rate parity in the form of the carry trade?

Stay tuned.

Translation of the Bank of Mexico’s Monetary Policy Announcement on Friday

2013.03.11.Banxico Agustin CarstensAs you may or may not have heard, the Bank of Mexico cut its benchmark interest rate on Friday by 50 points to 4 percent. This is kind of a big deal for reasons I’ll get into in a separate comment. But for the time being I just wanted the full text of the statement in English for easy referencing and nobody else seems to be carrying this, so I just did the translation. More to come shortly.

Here’s the original link in Spanish from Banxico’s website.

Here’s the translation (bold emphasis mine):

March 8, 2013

Monetary Policy Announcement

The Bank of Mexico has decided to reduce the interbank interest rate by 50 points to 4.0 percent.

The global economy continues showing signs of weakness. In the United States growth in 2013 is expected to be lower than in 2012 and important downside risks are prevalent. In particular, the recovery of economic activity and employment, supported in large part by monetary policy, is being affected by necessary fiscal consolidation.

In the Eurozone, economic activity continues without showing signs of recovery. Furthermore, regarding economic recovery, uncertainty continues about the effect necessary fiscal adjustments will have, the health of the European financial system and the possibility of major political instability, particularly among the peripheral economies.

Continue reading

Chart Of The Day: Emerging Markets Currency Wars Landscape

This is interesting:

2013.03.06.Swan FX Diagram

2013.03.06.Swan FX Table

And here’s an explanation of what we’re looking at:

Continue reading