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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Why Buy Asian FX (Part 2)

The strength of portfolio capital inflows into Asia reflects the outperformance of Asian economies relative to Western economies. Whilst the US, Europe, Japan and UK have struggled to recover from recession and are likely to register only sub-par recovery over the coming months, Asian economies led by China are recovering quickly and strongly. This pattern is set to continue, leading to a widening divergence between Asian and G7 economic growth.

As growth strengthens inflationary pressures are set to build up and Asian central banks will likely raise interest rates more quickly than their G7 counterparts. Already some central banks have moved in this direction, with India, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam, having tightened policy. This will be followed by many other central banks in Asia over Q2 2010 including China. Even countries with close trade links to Asia, in particular Australia will rate hikes further over coming months, with Australian interest rates likely to rise to a peak of 5% by year-end.

Given that the US is unlikely to raise interest rates in 2010 higher interest rates across Asia will result in a widening in the interest rate differential with the US leading to more upside potential for Asian currencies as their ‘carry’ attraction increases relative to the USD. The most sensitive Asian currencies to interest rate differentials at present are the Malaysian ringgit (MYR), Thai baht (THB) and Philippines peso (PHP) but I believe that as rates rise in Asia, the sensitivity will increase further for many more Asian currencies.

Most Asian currencies have registered positive performances versus the USD in 2010 led by the MYR and Indonesian rupiah (IDR) and closely followed by the Indian rupee (INR), THB and South Korean won (KRW). The notable exception is China which has been unyielding to pressure to allow the CNY to strengthen. Even China is set to allow some FX appreciation although if the US labels China as a “currency manipulator” it could prove counterproductive and even result in a delay in CNY appreciation.

Looking ahead, the trend of strengthening Asian FX will continue likely led by the likes of the KRW and INR but with the MYR, TWD and IDR not far behind. Stronger growth, higher interest rates, strengthening capital inflows and higher equity markets will contribute to appreciation in Asian currencies over the remainder of the year.

Chinese stocks enter bear market

Markets can only be described as fickle as they gyrate back and forth depending on the latest news or earnings report and as a result direction is changing not just daily but also intra-day.  Investors in most asset classes will continue to focus on stocks especially the recently underperforming Chinese equity market (Shanghai A share index) which officially moved into bearish territory after falling by over 20% from its early August high. 

Various reasons for the drop can be cited including regulator’s curbs on the stock market, high valuations, absence of new fund launches, limits on institutional buying,  high level of new accounts adding to volatility, tighter regulations on real estate, etc, but whatever the reason the direction has been clearly downwards and the impact is being felt across markets.

The turnaround in equity markets during Wednesday’s sessions was dramatic and was led by the turnaround in Chinese stocks which dragged other Asian bourses down with it.   This outweighed any positive sentiment from Market positives so far this week including a strong reading for the German August ZEW survey which surpassed forecasts by a large margin.  This followed the extension of the TALF by the Fed, and a jump in the US Empire manufacturing survey at the beginning of the week.  

Aside from weaker equities the usual FX beneficiaries including the dollar and yen strengthened on the back of the Chinese stock rout.   S&P’s affirmation of China’s credit ratings and positive comments from China’s stats office about the economic outlook in the months ahead  failed to support sentiment.  This would have been expected to provide a positive backdrop for Asian markets but Chinese stock market jitters provided a strong headwind to local markets. 

Overall most measures of risk have seen a substantial improvement over the past few months but there is no doubt that nerves are creeping back into the market.   This time the nervousness is coming from China and worryingly it is swamping the effect of any good news on the global economy and earnings.   This may prove to be a blip on the long road to recovery in risk appetite but it is difficult to ignore such a sharp fall in Chinese stocks without looking at the potential contagion to other equity markets.  

On the FX front those currencies that are most correlated with risk aversion such as the Australian dollar, New Zealand dollar, South African rand, Indonesian rupiah, Brazilian real and Mexican peso will gyrate in relation to the moves in risk appetite.   These currencies have had the highest correlations with risk aversion over the past month and in the current environment will come under some pressure at least until risk sentiment changes again, which in this market could happen at any moment and without warning.

Is the Asian FX rally losing steam?

Asian currencies appear to have lost some of their upward momentum over recent days.  Although the outlook remains positive further out, they are likely to struggle to make further gains over coming weeks.  One the one hand strong inflows into Asian equity markets have given support to currencies but on the other hand, data releases reveal only a gradual economic recovery is taking place, with continued pressure on the trade front as seen in the weakness in recent export data in the region.  Even China has been cautious about the prospects of recovery in the country.   

Almost all currencies in Asia have recouped their losses against the US dollar so far this year, with the Indonesian rupiah the star performer, having strengthened by over 11% since the start of the year.  More recently the Indian rupee has taken up the mantle of best performer, strengthening sharply following the positive outcome of recent elections.  The rupee has strengthened by around 3.5% since the beginning of the year and its appreciation has accelerated post elections.   

Much of the gain in the rupee can be attributable to the $4.4 billion of inflows into local equity markets over the last few months, a far superior performance to last year when India registered persistent outflows. Notably in this respect, the Philippines peso is set to struggle as foreign flows into local equities lag far behind other countries in the region.  Inflows into Phililipines stocks have been just $226 million year-to-date as fiscal concerns weigh on foreign investor sentiment.   

South Korea has been the clear winner in terms of equity capital inflows in 2009, with over $6 billion of foreign money entering into the Korean stock market.  Elsewhere, Taiwan has benefited from the prospects of growing investment flows from China and in turn equity market inflows have risen to around $4.3 billion supported by news such as the recent report  that Taiwan will allow mainland Chinese investors to invest in 100 industries.  Equity inflows into these currencies are far stronger than over the same period in 2008, highlighting the massive shift in sentiment towards Asia and emerging markets in general.

Unsurprisingly stock markets in Asia have been highly correlated with regional currencies over recent months, with almost all currencies in Asia registering a strong directional relationship with their respective equity markets.  Recent strong gains in equities have boosted currencies but this relationship reveals the vulnerability of currencies in the region to any set back in equities, which I believe could come from a reassessment of the market’s bullish expectations for Asian recovery.  

Central banks in the region have been acting to prevent a further rapid strengthening in Asian currencies by intervening in FX markets but a turn in equity markets and/or risk appetite could do the job for them and result in a quick shift in sentiment away from regional currencies. The Indonesian rupiah remains one to watch in terms of further upside potential, supported by the Asian Development Bank’s $1bn loan to Indonesia.   The outlook for the Indian rupee also looks favourable as post election euphoria continues.  Nonetheless, the gains in these and other Asian currencies have been significant and rapid and I believe there is scope for a pull back or at least consolidation in the weeks ahead.

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