Posts tagged Currencies
There has been almost nothing “happy” about the New Year thus far. It’s probably a good thing that investors had a whole weekend in which to shake off New Year’s Day hangovers before showing up to face a sea of red arrows on Monday morning. Those red arrows, of course, came courtesy of yet another series of bafflingly inept moves by Beijing’s financial policymakers. It would be an exaggeration to say that the world’s second largest economy is in a swoon, but its financial markets certainly are.
But while the dramatic pullback in world equity markets and rising volatility are strong reasons to give pause, we do not believe this is the right time to pull the panic switch. While unquestionably a critically important component of the global economy, China depends on other world markets for its exports more than other world markets depend on China’s domestic demand for their own fortunes. Moreover, the fortunes of US companies still depend more on the US consumer than anything else. This year may provide a decisive answer to the question of whether the US economy can continue to prosper as the world’s growth engine despite increasing weakness elsewhere. We don’t yet know that answer – but based on the data we have on hand, we are not ready to jump into the lifeboats. If today’s environment bears any resemblance to past periods, we think more of 1997-98, and less of 2007-08. It is worth revisiting what happened back then before we conclude with our thoughts on the current market.
Asian Currencies, Act I
The Asian currency crisis of 1997 had an effect on equity markets around the world, including the US. The chart below shows the price performance of the MSCI All Counties Asia Pacific index from January 1997 to December 1998, versus the S&P 500 for the same time period.
The carnage in Asia was fast and brutal, with currencies falling as much as 40 percent against the dollar, and regional stock exchanges losing as much as 60 percent. As the above chart shows the S&P 500 (in green) suffered a rapid succession of pullbacks of 5 percent or greater between the summer of 1997 and January 1998 (the pullbacks are indicated in the chart along with the magnitude of each peak-to-trough drawdown). These pullbacks came on the heels of a near-10 percent correction that took place before the currency crisis. Many investors at the time interpreted this shaky performance – in the context of a deeply troubled global economy – as presaging an end to the bull market that had run nearly uninterrupted since early 1995. Asia was seen as the world’s emerging growth region, with great promise for US companies to manufacture, source labor and materials, and sell to the fast-growing middle class households in the region. The currency crisis threatened to bring a swift end to the good times and to provide a headwind to US companies’ EPS growth.
Russia Unleashes the Bears
As dire as the currency crisis was for Asian markets, which continued to fall through most of 1998, the US channeled its inner Taylor Swift and “shook it off” to rally strongly through the first half of 1998. Investors’ focus turned away from turmoil elsewhere to focus on the strength of the domestic US market, particularly the tech boom riding on the Internet’s penetration into commerce and social life. Then another foreign time bomb went off in August, when Russia devalued its currency and defaulted on its sovereign debt obligations. Another massive selloff took place in US equities – this one approaching the 20 percent threshold for a bear market. Caught up in the Russia collapse was the hedge fund Long Term Capital Management, which over the course of a tense few days threatened to turn this pullback into a genuine pandemic.
After all the drama, though, it turned out that the best way for investors in US stocks to navigate these two volatile years was to…do nothing at all. The S&P 500 registered a 66 percent cumulative price gain from the beginning of 1997 to the end of 1998. It was undoubtedly tempting to sell out at various critical junctures, but patience and discipline were rewarded.
Asian Currencies, Act II
Asian currencies are once again at the center of things. Most fell sharply against the dollar last year, though so far by generally less than they did in 1997. The Malaysian ringgit, for example, is about 23 percent lower versus the dollar over the past twelve months, and the Thai baht is softer by some 11 percent. Of course, this time it is the China renminbi – largely not a factor in the ’97 crisis – that is the center of focus. The RMB has devalued by just over six percent from where it was before the first bout of devaluation last August. What should not be forgotten, however, is that the renminbi was largely flat against the dollar in the first half of 2015, while the euro and other developed and EM currencies were falling.
Also worth remembering is that China as well as its Asia EM neighbors are in far stronger FX reserve positions today than they were in 1997. The threat of a debt default by any regional government is considerably more remote than it was nineteen years ago. China’s policymakers may demonstrate a tin ear when it comes to considering the likely short term impact of their decisions on world financial markets, but it is hard to imagine them making the kind of policy mistake that would trigger a real economic freefall.
And that brings us to China’s real economy. All the drama this week started with a below-consensus manufacturing report representing a fifth month of contraction. At the same time, though, recent indicators of consumer activity have been good – retail sales have been growing at double-digit rates for most of the last twelve months. If China’s economic transition is going to succeed, it is going to succeed thanks to the consumer, so these trends are absolutely consequential to the larger picture.
And if China does export price deflation to other markets through a weaker currency? Well, lower prices for China imports could be stimulative for US consumer activity. As we said earlier, what is good for the US consumer will likely be good for US stocks. Admittedly, this is a rational argument being made at the end of an irrational week. We may not be out of the woods as far as the current pullback is concerned. But we are not panicking.
Ah, yes, it is turning out to be another one of those unpredictable Augusts. US East Coasters woke up Tuesday morning to news of a major devaluation of the Chinese currency, the renminbi (RMB). Global asset markets then spent several days lurching this way and that as investors attempted to divine the meaning behind the sharply lower RMB reference rate set by the People’s Bank of China (PBOC), the nation’s central bank. As another summer weekend approaches, the preliminary consensus appears to be of the “tempest in a teapot” variety. Most bellwether asset classes have stabilized over the past forty eight hours. But investors heading back out to their boats and beach houses will likely still be pondering the Chinese currency’s near term prospects, and how this new twist adds to the brew of ingredients shaping possible Fed moves in September.
Market Adjustment or Currency War?
It is important to understand what did – and did not – happen this week. Every morning the Chinese monetary authorities set a reference rate for the RMB, and market makers are allowed to trade within a two percent range around that reference rate. Prior to Tuesday, the daily published reference rate had no explicit relationship whatsoever to market forces. There was no formula linking the reference rate to the previous intraday close or to perceived market supply and demand; rather, the reference rate was simply what the PBOC thought it should be.
Tuesday’s reference rate set the RMB at a level 1.9 percent below the previous close, and that announcement unleashed a flurry of pent-up selling pressure to take the currency down the daily maximum two percent from the morning rate. By the end of the week the net effect of the PBOC’s moves and market trading was a 4.4 percent decline in the value of the RMB versus the dollar. That was a move of a sufficient magnitude to push the topic of currency wars back into the discourse. However, the evidence so far does not support a clear-cut conclusion that China’s actions are motivated primarily by goosing up its export competitiveness.
Admission to the Club
Chinese policymakers this week pointed to the goal of a more tangible link between market forces and the RMB as driving the recent reference rate policy decisions. There is some convincing logic behind these statements. It is no secret that China would like to see enhanced reserve status for the RMB and a more prominent role for the currency in global trade and finance. An important milestone for this goal would be to have the RMB admitted to the elite club of IMF Special Drawing Rights (SDR) currencies, taking a seat alongside the dollar, euro, yen and pound sterling. Engendering more market transparency for the RMB is seen by many as a necessary box to check off for admission to the SDR club. Of course, proof that this is in fact China’s primary goal will require the People’s Bank of China to allow the currency to strengthen (thus weakening exports) as well as devalue when market forces so dictate.
Back to the Fed
Whatever the reason, a weaker renminbi is likely to factor into the calculus of the Fed’s forthcoming decision on whether to kick off its rate program in September. A rate hike that resulted in a sharply higher dollar, in the context of an already lower RMB, could have unfavorable economic consequences for US growth and prices. Such a scenario could give the Fed pause and push its decision back to December. The data would suggest this is likely, with recent headline GDP, employment and inflation numbers decent but certainly not indicative of an overheating economy. Alternatively, the Fed may simply want to get on with it and end the continual will-they-won’t-they chatter. If it does come in September, though, the rate hike may possibly be the most dovish ever.
China’s currency, the renminbi (RMB), has a relatively brief history as an asset that rises and falls according to market supply and demand. Up until 2005, the renminbi’s rate was tightly pegged to the U.S. dollar. China’s economic policymakers then began a series of gradual moves to liberalize the currency, albeit with the heavy hand of the People’s Bank of China (PBoC, the country’s central bank) guiding the pace of change. Since then, the renminbi’s trajectory has been a virtual one-way street, appreciating to record highs (both nominal and real) in January 2014. Investors have poured into the market in droves, seeing little risk in the orderly evolution from backwater currency to legitimate contender for reserve status alongside the U.S. dollar and the Euro.
But those bets have been thrown for a loop in the past two weeks. The renminbi has indeed been a one-way street since then – but in the other direction. The magnitude of the drop since mid-February is more than 1.5%.
Please See Yourselves Out…
On the surface, this chart would appear to be little different from other emerging markets currencies that have been hit hard recently, from the Turkish lira to the South African rand and, more recently, the Ukrainian hryvnia. But in China’s case this is not about fickle foreign investors racing for the exit doors; it’s actually about the PBoC itself trying to push those investors out the exit doors. China’s central bank is by far the largest player in the RMB market, and it is the driving force behind the plunge seen in the above chart. Central bankers are not coy about this: since the New Year, the PBoC has stated openly its intention to make the currency “more volatile” – i.e. as likely to fall as it is to rise – in efforts to cool off the pace of capital flows into the country and rid investors of the one-way street illusion.
Not the BOJ Playbook
Why would China want to drive down the value of its currency? Observers familiar with the dynamics of export-centric Asian economies may point to other regional examples, notably the Bank of Japan. Over the course of the last twelve months, Japanese financial policymakers have moved aggressively to weaken the yen, which has fallen more than 12% over that time period. Using a weaker currency to promote trade is a longstanding practice. It would seem to make sense for an economy like China, which derives over 40% of its GDP from international trade, to do likewise. But the People’s Bank of China is not the Bank of Japan. At no time since it became a global economic power has China explicitly sought to devalue the RMB to gain export share. On the contrary, the official policy for most of the time since the partial liberalization in 2005 has been to guide its value upwards.
Cooling Off The Hot Money
China’s economic policymakers have targeted the country’s overheated financial sector as a major structural challenge. The country’s GDP is heavily lopsided in favor of investments, at the expense of domestic consumption. On a national balance sheet “investments” can mean anything from factories manufacturing iPad components to real estate speculation on shopping malls in Guangdong. Speculative ventures have been in favor as of late, many of them funded by capital inflows from Chinese-owned offshore facilities in Hong Kong. Worries of a credit bubble have been hanging over China for some time now. A more aggressive PBoC position in the currency market may be a sign that the government is making good on the policy changes addressed in last November’s Third Plenum.
Investors will be watching closely over the next several days to see if the sell-off continues. Many will be hoping that the currency stabilizes around current levels. There are hundreds of billions of dollars tied up in complex currency derivatives that could unravel if the rate goes much lower. The PBoC understands this, of course, and most likely does not want the currency’s trajectory to spiral out of control. But the unexpected can happen, even in a highly controlled market like the RMB.