Are foreign investors really turning away from US debt?

The press has been full of stories about the dangers to US credit ratings and growing concerns by foreign official investors about the value of their holdings of US Treasury bonds.   A combination of concerns about the rising US fiscal deficit, Fed quantitative easing and potential monetization of US debt, have accumulated to fuel such fears. Given the symbiotic relationship between China and the US it is perhaps unsurprising that China has been one of the most vocal critics. I have highlighted this in past posts, especially related to the risks to the US dollar. Please refer to US dolllar beaten by the bears and US dolllar under pressure. However, my concerns that foreign investors have been shunning US Treasuries recently may have proved somewhat premature.

Should China or other large reserves holders pull out of US asset markets, it would imply a sharp rise in US bond yields and a much weaker dollar.  However, it is not easy for China or any other central bank to act on such concerns.  China is faced with a “dollar trap” in that any decline in their buying of US Treasuries would undoubtedly reduce the value of their existing Treasury holdings as well as drive up the value of the Chinese yuan as the dollar weakens.  Such a self defeating policy would clearly be unwelcome. 

One solution that China has proposed to reduce the global reliance on the dollar and in turn US assets was to make greater use of Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) which I discussed in a previous post, but in reality this would be fraught with technical difficulties and would in any case take years to achieve.  Nor will it be quick or easy for China to persuade other countries to make more use of the yuan in the place of the dollar.  The first problem in doing so is that fact that the yuan is not a convertible currency and therefore foreign holders would have difficulties in doing much with the currency.  

Foreign official concerns are understandable but whether this translates into a major drop in buying of US Treasuries is another issue all together.  Foreign countries have been gradually reducing their share of dollars in foreign exchange reserves over a period of years.  This is supported by IMF data which shows that dollar holdings in the composition of foreign exchange reserves have fallen from over 70% in 1999 to around 64% at the end of last year.

In contrast the share of euro in global foreign exchange reserves has increased to 27% from 18% over the same period.  This process of diversification likely reflects the growing importance of other major currencies in terms of trade and capital flows, especially the euro, but the pace of diversification can hardly be labeled as rapid. 

Importantly, there is no sign that there has been an acceleration of diversification over recent weeks or months.  Fed custody holdings for foreign official investors have held up well.  In fact, these holdings have actually increased over recent weeks.  Moreover, the share of indirect bids (foreign official participation) in US Treasury auctions have been strong over recent weeks.  Taken together it provides yet more evidence that foreign official investors haven’t shifted away from US bonds despite all the rhetoric. 

Europe to recover at a snail’s pace

There have been two pieces of data released over recent days which give us a good idea of the state of Europe’s biggest economy, Germany. The IFO survey - a crucial gauge of business confidence and an important forward looking indicator for the German economy, if not the whole eurozone economy – increased in May for the second straight month but came in lower than forecast. The second was the final reading of first quarter GDP, which confirmed the very steep 3.8% quarterly decline in growth, fuelled in large part by weaker exports.

Of course any improvement is encouraging but the fact that the rise in the IFO was less than expected highlights that the market has moved from excessive pessimism to being overly optimistic about recovery prospects. Moreover, at current levels the IFO remains at historically lows and still consistent with economic contraction. Admittedly it is at least consistent with a smaller pace of contraction in the economy in the months ahead but still way off indicating actual economic expansion.

The problem for Germany as highlighted by the GDP data is that the economy remains highly export dependent and given that global trade continues to shrink it points to very difficult times ahead. Moreover, the likelihood of a much bigger increase in unemployment and ongoing problems in the financial sector, points to the outlook for the consumer remaining very tough indeed for a long time to come.

Financial sector problems will only delay recovery.  A report in the UK’s Telegraph even carries a warning from the German bank regulator that toxic debts at German banks could blow up “like a grenade”. I won’t spend any more time on toxic debts at European banks but suggest reading a previous post titled “Stress testing European and UK banks” ,that highlights the lack of transparency and potential for much more writedowns in the months to come.

The problem is not just a German one. The eurozone economy is likely to recover much more slowly than the US despite the fact that the US was at the epicenter of the crisis. The major difference is that policy in the US is far more aggressive and rapid compared to Europe. European policymakers have struggled to put together any form of co-ordinated policy response and there is still an unwillingness from Germany to enact a fiscal stimulus package despite the fact the economy has weakened more rapidly than many other countries.

Moreover, conflict within the European Central Bank (ECB) council means that an aggressive move towards quantitative easing appears highly unlikely. The latest measure by the ECB to purchase EUR 60 billion in covered bonds hardly registered with markets. Faced with many opposing views from within the ECB representing many different countries this situation is unlikely to change anytime soon. As a result, Europe is destined for a snail’s pace of recovery, which could also stall the appreciation of the euro in the month ahead.

US dollar beaten by the bears

Since I wrote my last post on the US dollar a week ago, US dollar under pressure, the slide in the dollar has accelerated against most currencies. Rather than being driven by an improvement in risk appetite however, it appears that the dollar is being hit by a major shift in sentiment. Indeed currency market dynamics appear be changing rapidly.

In particular, there has been a major breakdown in the relationship between the dollar and equity markets, suggesting that the influence of risk on FX markets is waning. For example, rather than rallying on the back of weaker equity markets over recent days, dollar weakness has actually intensified.

More likely this is becoming a pure and clear slide in sentiment for the dollar. There was some indication of this from the latest CFTC IMM Commitment of traders’ report which is a good gauge to speculative market positioning, showing that net dollar positioning has become negative for the first time in several months.

More evidence of this is the fact that the dollar / yen exchange rate has fallen even as risk appetite has improved. This is at odds with the usual relationship between the Japanese yen and risk appetite. The yen benefited the most from higher risk aversion since the crisis began, strengthening sharply against many currencies. As risk appetite improves and equity markets rally the yen would be expected to weaken the most as risk appetite improves.

I had looked for dollar weakness to accelerate into the second half of 2009 but against some currencies the drop in the dollar has come earlier than anticipated. I also thought that the dollar may stand a chance at a bit of a recovery in the near term if equity markets slipped and risk aversion increased. I was wrong about this. Despite the drop in equities over recent days the USD has also lost ground. Nor has the USD benefited from higher bond yields in the US.

The evidence is clear; USD bearishness is becoming more entrenched and the likelihood of a risk related rebound is becoming more remote even as risk aversion picks up once again. There appears to be a general shift away from US assets in general particularly Treasuries and most likely by foreign official investors who appear to be accelerating their diversification away from the dollar over recent weeks.

The importance of foreign buying of US Treasuries should not be underestimated in terms of its influence on the USD. Foreign purchases of US Treasuries made up 77% of total foreign buying of US securities in 2008. If there is a growing chance of a downgrade to the US’s AAA credit rating in the wake of a budget deficit that will be around $1.85 trillion this year and a rising debt/GDP ratio, the drop in the dollar seen so far may prove to be small compared to downside risks in the months ahead.

Will India remain in the shadows?

Indian markets rejoiced in a big way following the outcome of the elections which put the secular Congress party back into power as the head of the United Progressive Alliance.   Stocks in India rose by a massive 17% and the rupee strengthened as markets gave a huge thumbs up to the outcome.   The margin of victory was bigger than had been expected and allows Congress to form a government with only minimal help from outside parties.  

Given that many had feared that the election would result in another unstable coalition supported by diverse parties each acting in their own interests,  the outcome was very positive.  In the event the result provides Congress with a strong mandate for change and reform.  The real question is whether they will grasp the opportunity or let it slip by and fall further behind into the shadow of China. 

There are of course many challenges that need to be faced on the home front including the alleviation of poverty for a huge chunk of the population, improving education, access to health care etc.   India also needs to move ahead with infrastructure spending, something which remains key to unlocking India’s potential growth and moving towards the pace of growth achieved by China.    As a comparison India spends around 6% of GDP on infrastructure spending compared to around 15% in China.   The results of such spending are obvious when looking at the pace of growth of both countries, with India growing relatively more slowly than China.

The issue is that even if the government has the mandate and the will to move forward with long awaited spending on infrastrucure, finding the money is the main problem.   The Indian government identified the need for $500 billion in infrastructure spending between 2007 and 2012 but the global financial crisis has seen a lot of potential investment disappear as banks bec0me increasingly strapped for cash and foreign investment shrinks due to lack of funding and an aversion to risk.   Restrictions on investments by funds that could potentially invest have also not helped whilst the government is limited in its spending by a huge fiscal deficit.    

The Congress party will need to grasp the opportunity that the election result has brought it and move forward to entice the investment needed to push forward with infrastructure plans.   One of the benefits of India’s slow pace of reform and gradual opening up of the economy is that the country has avoided the worst of the global economic crisis.  Even China will find it a huge challenge to shift its growth engine from export orientated growth to domestic consumption.  India is in a good position to take advantage of its relative resilience and now has a government with a strong mandate to do so.    It would be a great pity for India and the rest of the world, given the potential for the country to become a much stronger trading power, if the government did not take this opportunity by the horns once the celebrations are over.   If not, the rally in Indian markets may prove to have been a fleeting one.

US dollar under pressure

The US dollar has come under major pressure, with the US dollar index (a composite of the dollar against various currencies) falling to 4-month lows.   The weakness of the US dollar has been broad based and even the Japanese yen which normally weakens as risk appetite improves, has strengthened against the USD.  The euro has also taken advantage of dollar weakness despite ongoing concerns about the European economy. The main source of pressure on the dollar is the improvement in market appetite for risk.  

As I noted in a previous post, “What drives currencies?” risk appetite has been one of the biggest drivers of currencies in the past year.   This has pushed other drivers such as interest rate differentials into the background.   In the post I also stated that we would all have to watch equity markets to determine where currencies will move, with stronger equities implying a weaker dollar.

The dollar looks particularly sickly at present and it is difficult to go against the trend.  It will need a major reversal in equity markets or risk appetite to see a renewed strengthening in the dollar.   Although I still think it will require some positive news as opposed to less negative news to keep the momentum in equity markets going (see previous post) the prospects for a stronger dollar remain limited.   

Over the coming months the dollar is set to weaken further and those currencies that have suffered most at the hands of a strong dollar will benefit the most as risk appetite improves.  It is no coincidence that the UK pound has strengthened sharply over recent days, and this is likely to continue given its past undervaluation.  Other currencies which were badly beaten such as the Australian dollar and Canadian dollar will also continue to make up ground, helped too by a rebound in commodity prices.   

Aside from improving risk appetite the dollar may also come under growing pressure from the Fed’s quantitative easing policy, especially if inflation expectations in the US rise relative to other countries as a consequence of this policy.  It will be crucial that the Fed removes QE in a timely manner and many dollar investors will be watching the Fed’s exit strategy closely.  

Although the US trade deficit is showing improvement another concern for dollar investors is the burgeoning fiscal deficit.   The US administration revised up its estimate for the FY 2009 deficit to $1.84 trillion or about 12.9% of GDP, highlighting the dramatic deterioration in the US fiscal position.  Concerns about this were highlighted in an FT article warning about the risk to US credit ratings.

The deterioration in dollar sentiment has also been reflected in speculative market positioning, which has seen speculative appetite for the dollar drop to its lowest level in several months. The bottom line is that any recovery in the dollar over the coming weeks is likely to be limited offering investors to take fresh short positions as investors continue to move away from holding the dollar.

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