Catching a falling knife

After a very long absence and much to the neglect to Econometer.org I am pleased to write a new post and apologise to those that subscribed to my blog, for the very long delay since my last post.   There is so much to say about the market turmoil at present, it is almost hard not to write something.

For those of you with eyes only on the continued strength in US stocks, which have hit record high after record high in recent weeks, it may be shocking news to your ears that the rest of the world, especially the emerging markets (EM) world, is in decidedly worse shape.

Compounding the impact of Federal Reserve rate hikes and strengthening US dollar, EM assets took another blow as President Trump’s long threatened tariffs on China began to be implemented.  Investors in countries with major external vulnerabilities in the form of large USD debts and current account deficits took fright and panic ensued.

Argentina and Turkey have been at the forefront of pressure due the factors above and also to policy inaction though Argentina has at least bit the bullet. Even in Asia, it is no coincidence that markets in current account deficit countries in the region, namely India, Indonesia, underperformed especially FX.  Even China’s currency, the renminbi, went through a rapid period of weakness, before showing some relative stability over recent weeks though I suspect the weakness was largely engineered.

What next? The plethora of factors impacting market sentiment will not just go away.  The Fed is set to keep on hiking, with several more rate increases likely over the next year or so.  Meanwhile the ECB is on track to ending its quantitative easing program by year end; the ECB meeting this Thursday will likely spell out more detail on its plans.  The other major central bank that has not yet revealed plans to step back from its easing policy is the Bank of Japan, but even the BoJ has been reducing its bond buying over past months.

The trade war is also set to escalate further.  Following the $50bn of tariffs already imposed on China $200 billion more could go into effect “very soon” according to Mr Trump. Worryingly he also added that tariffs on a further $267bn of Chinese goods could are “ready to go on short notice”, effectively encompassing all of China’s imports to the US.  China has so far responded in kind. Meanwhile though a deal has been agreed between the US and Mexico, a deal encompassing Canada in the form a new NAFTA remains elusive.

Idiosyncratic issues in Argentina and Turkey remain a threat to other emerging markets, not because of economic or banking sector risks, but due increased contagion as investors shaken from losses in a particular country, pull capital out of other EM assets.  The weakness in many emerging market currencies, local currency bonds and equities, has however, exposed value.  Whether investors want to catch a falling knife, only to lose their fingers is another question. which I will explore in my next post.

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Asian currencies vulnerable to equity outflows

Asian currencies are set to continue to trade cautiously. One big headwind to further appreciation is the fact that there has been a substantial outlook of equity capital over recent weeks. Over the last month to date Asian equity markets have registered an outflow of $3.3 billion in outflows. However, whilst Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand and India have seen outflows Indonesia, Philippines, and Vietnam have registered inflows.

The net result is that equity capital inflows to Asia so far this year are almost flat, a stark contrast from 2009 and 2010 when inflows were much higher at the same point in the year. The odds for further strong inflows do not look good, especially as the Fed ends QE2 by the end of June. While a sharp reversal in capital flows is unlikely, it also seems unlikely that Asia will register anywhere near as strong inflows as the last couple of years.

This will have a significant impact on Asian currencies, whose performance mirrors capital flows into the region. Almost all Asian currencies have dropped against the USD so far this month and could remain vulnerable if outflows continue. Given the relative stability of the USD over recent weeks and imminent end to QE2, the better way to play long Asia FX is very much against the increasingly vulnerable EUR.

The THB has been the worst performing currency this month but its weakness has been attributable to upcoming elections on July 3, which has kept foreign investor sentiment cautious. Thailand has seen an outflow of $812mn from its equity market this month. Polls show the PM Abhisit’s party trailing the opposition and nervousness is likely to persist up to the elections at least. THB weakness is not likely to persist over coming months, with USD/THB forecast at 29.2 by year end.

USD/KRW has been whipsawed over the past week but made up ground despite a continued outflow of equity capital over recent days. KRW has been particularly resilient despite a firmer USD environment and a drop in consumer sentiment in June. Next week the KRW will likely continue to trade positively, helped by a likely firm reading for May industrial production on Thursday. USD/KRW is set to trade in a 1070-1090 range, with direction likely to come from Greece’s parliament vote on its austerity measures.

TWD has traded weaker in June, having been one of the worst performing currencies over the month. USD/TWD does not have a particularly strongly correlation with movements in the USD or risk aversion at present but the currency has suffered from a very sharp outflow of equity capital over recent weeks (biggest outflow out of all Asian countries so far this month). Next week’s interest rate decision on Thursday by the central bank (CBC) will give some direction to the TWD but a 12.5bps increase in policy rates should not come as a big surprise. TWD is likely to trade with a weaker bias but its losses are likely to be capped around the 29.00 level versus USD.

Asian Currency Differentiation

Asian currencies have started the year in mixed form, but it would be wrong to generalize the performance of Asian currencies as weak. There have been marginal gains recorded year to date vs. USD in the KRW, TWD, MYR and SGD, reflecting strong capital equity inflows. This contrasts with losses in the IDR, INR, PHP and THB versus USD. Compared to the beginning of 2010 equity capital flows have been far weaker overall, with India, Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand, recording outflows, matching the performance of their currencies.

Clearly investors are discriminating more at the turn of 2011. For example Taiwan has recorded solid equity inflows over recent weeks (over $2 billion year-to-date), matching the strength of inflows registered at the beginning of 2010. It appears that Taiwan stocks have started the year as the Asian favorite, helped by growing expectations of further door opening to mainland investment and tourism. Korean equities have also registered inflows helping to support the KRW, which looks to be good buy over the short term above 1120.

This contrast with outflows registered in other Asian equity markets. A major concern responsible for some of the weakness in capital flows to Asia is the threat of inflation. For example, the selling of stocks in India appears to be closely related to inflation concerns and the hawkish rhetoric of the Reserve Bank of India, which is continuing its tightening path this year. Similarly, the PHP may be vulnerable over the short term following a failed T-bill auction on Monday. Inflation worries have clearly led to a push for higher yields but the bids were labeled as “unreasonable” by the government.

Over coming weeks, further EUR strength will likely give Asian currencies more support as the USD succumbs to further pressure. Continued strengthening in the CNY will also support other Asian currencies given that the CNY fixing has reached its highest level since the July 2005 revaluation.

Resisting Asian FX Appreciation

The upward momentum in Asian currencies has continued unabated over recent weeks the gyrations in risk appetite. Most Asian currencies have registered gains against the USD over 2010 with the notable exception of one of last year’s star performers, KRW which after gaining by close to 9% last year has weakened slightly this year. Last year’s best performer the IDR which raked in close to 20% gains over 2009 versus USD has continued to strengthen this year, albeit to a smaller degree. Another currency that has extended gains this year has been the THB, which is on track to beat last year’s 4% appreciation against the USD.

The strength in Asian currencies has in part reflected robust inflows into Asian equity markets. For example Indonesia has been the recipient of around $1.7 billion in equity inflows so far this year. However, India and Korea have registered even larger inflows into their respective equity markets, at around $13 billion and $7.7, respectively, yet both the INR and KRW have underperformed other Asian currencies. The explanation for this is largely due to deteriorating current account positions in both countries. Further deterioration is likely.

The fact that equity flows have had only a small impact on the INR and KRW is reflected in their low correlations with their respective equity market performance. For most other Asian currencies the correlation with equity performance has been quite high, with the THB and MYR having the strongest correlations with their respective equity market indices over the past 3-months although the SGD, PHP and IDR have also maintained statistically significant correlations.

Clearly, for many but not all Asian currencies equity market gyrations are important drivers but at a time when growth is slowing more than many had expected in the US and governments in the eurozone are implementing austerity measures which will likely result in slowing growth and a worsening trade picture in the region, central banks in Asia will become increasingly wary of allowing their currencies from strengthening too quickly.

Increasingly Asian currency strength is being met with intervention by central banks in the region buying USDs against a host of Asian currencies. Over recent weeks this intervention appears to have become more aggressive. Nonetheless, any FX intervention led weakness in Asian FX is likely to prove short lived, with renewed appreciation likely over the coming months unless risk aversion increases dramatically. In other words a drop in Asian currencies will provide better opportunities to go long.

The CNY will play an important role on the pace and pattern of Asian currency movements. Investors in the region will also have one eye on developments on the visit of US National Economic Council director Larry Summers to Beijing. The CNY has firmed over recent days but this appears to be the usual pattern when a senior US official is in town and ahead of a G20 meeting. The fact is however, that the lack of CNY appreciation since the June CNY de-pegging remains a highly sensitive issue.

China is unlikely to yield to US pressure and is set to continue to act at its own pace and comments from officials in China over the past couple of days suggest no shift in FX stance. Although the CNY has not appreciated by as much as many had hoped for or expected since the June de-pegging the path is likely to be upwards, albeit at a gradual pace. For Asian currencies a slow pace of CNY appreciation implies further reluctance to allow a fast pace of appreciation so expect plenty of FX intervention in the weeks and months ahead.

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