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Saturday, May 23, 2009

Don't Get Carried Away Now!

As Paul Krugman recently pointed out, one of the central points they made in the latest IMF World Economic Outlook was that recessions caused by financial crises tend to get resolved on the back of export-lead booms, with countries normally emerging from the crisis with a positive trade balance of over 3 percent of GDP. The reason for this is simple, since consumers are so laden-down with debt from the boom period, they are naturally more obsessed with saving than borrowing during the initial crisis aftermath. So much then for the typical crisis, and the typical exit. But musing on this point lead Krugman to an additional, rather disturbing, conclusion: since the present financial crisis is truly global in its reach, the habitual exit route to recovery will only work after we are able to identify another planet to send all those exports to (shades of Startreck IV). The joke may seem a rather exaggerated one, in poor taste even, but behind it there lies a little bit more than a grain of truth.

But not everywhere is gloom and doom at the moment, and on the other side of the world they woke up reeling from different kind of bounce last Monday morning, on learning that India’s outgoing government had been not only been re-elected, but had been thrust back into power on a much more stable basis. And that was not the only pleasant surprise in store for those reading their morning newspapers in London, Madrid or New York, since India's main stock index - the Sensex - shot up as much as 17% during early trading on receiving the news, while the rupee also surged sharply. So just one more time we find ourselves faced with the prospect of living in a rather divided world, where on one side we have growing and deepening pessimism, while on the other we see a burst of optimism, with someone, somewhere, getting a massive dose of that "let a thousand green shoots bloom" kinda feeling. Perhaps we should ask ourselves whether there is any connection?


Well, and to cut the long story short, yes there is, and the connection has a name, and it's called sentiment. Indeed sentiment is precisely why the recent (and highly controversial) US bank stress tests were so important. Their real significance was not for any relevance they may have from a US banking point of view (which was, of course, highly contested), but for the reassurance they can give market participants that there will not be another financial explosion in the United States (as opposed to a protracted recession, and long slow recovery), or put another way, to show the days of "safe haven" investing are now over. Risk is about to make a comeback, and the only question is where?

Which brings us straight back to all that earlier talk of coupling, recoupling, decoupling, and uncoupling which we saw so much of a year or so ago (or to Decoupling 2.0, as the Economist calls it). And to the world as we knew it before the the demise of Lehmann brothers, where commodity prices were booming like there was no tomorrow on the one hand, while credit- and housing-markets markets were steadily melting down in the developed economies on the other, where growth was being clocked up in many emerging economies at ever accelerating rates, while the only "shoots" we could see on the horizon in the US, Europe and Japan were those of burgeoining recessions.

The point to note here is not just that a significant group of investors and their fund managers spent the better part of 2008 busily adapting their behaviour to changed conditions in the US, Europe and Japan, but rather that a very novel set of conditions began to emerge, as the credit crunch worked its way forward and property markets drifted off into stagnation in one OECD economy after another. Just as they were finally announcing closing time in the gardens of the West almost overnight it started "raining money" in one emerging economy after another - as foreign exchange came flooding in, and the really hard problem for governments and central banks to solve seemed to be not how to attract funding, but rather how to avoid receiving an excess of it. Thailand even attained a certain notoriety by imposing capital controls with the explicit objective of discouraging funds not from leaving but from entering the country.

Then suddenly things moved on, and day became night just as quickly as night had become day as one fund flow after another reversed course, and the money disappeared just as quickly as it had arrived. Behind this second credit crunch lay an ongoing wave of emerging-market central bank tightening (during which Banco Central do Brasil deservedly earned its spurs as the Bundesbank of Latin America) with the consequence that one emerging economy after another began to wilt under the twin strain of stringent monetary policy and sharply rising inflation. Thus the boom "peaked" in July (when oil prices were at their highest), and momentum was already disapearing when the hammer blow was finally dealt by the decision to let Lehman Brothers fall in late September. By November all those previous positive expectations were being sharply revised down, with the IMF making an initial cut in its global growth estimate for 2009 - to 2.2 percent from the 3.7 percent projected for 2008. The World Bank went even further, and by early December was projecting that world trade would fall in 2009 for the first time since 1982, with capital flows to developing countries being expected to plunge by around 50 percent. By March 2009 they were estimating that the volume of world trade, which had grown by 9.8 percent in 2006 and by 6.2 percent in 2007, was even likely to fall by 9 percent this year.

Having said this, and while fully recognising that the future is never an exact rerun of the past - and especially not the most recent past - given that emerging economies have been the key engines of global growth over the last five years, is there any really compelling reason for believing they won't continue to be over the next five? Could we not draw the conclusion that what was "unsustainable" was not the solid trend growth which we were observing between 2002 and 2007, but rather the excess pressure and overheating to which the key EM economies were subjected after the summer of 2007? And if that is the case, might it not be that the "planet" we need to find to do all that much needed exporting to isn't so far away after all, but right here on this earth, and directly under our noses, in the shape of a growing band of successful emerging economies.

According to IMF data, the so called BRIC countries actually accounted for nearly half of global growth in 2008 - China alone accounted for a quarter, and Brazil, India and Russia were responsible for another quarter. All-in-all, the emerging and developing countries combined accounted for about two-thirds of global growth (as measured using PPP adjusted exchange rates) . Furthermore, and most significantly, the IMF notes that these economies “account for more than 90 per cent of the rise in consumption of oil products and metals and 80 per cent of the rise in consumption of grains since 2002”.

But behind the recent emerging market phenomenon what we have is not only a newly emerging growth rate differential, since alongside this there is also alarge scale and ongoing currency re-alignment taking place, a realignment driven, as it happens, by those very same growth rate differentials. The consequential rapid and dramatic rise in dollar GDP values (produced by the combination of strong growth and a declining dollar) has meant that a slow but steady convergence in global living standards - at least in the cases of those economies who have been experiencing the strongest acceleration - has been taking place, and at a much more rapid pace than anyone could possibly have dreamed of back in the 1990s, even if the long term strategic importance of this has been masked by the recent collapse in commodity prices and the downward slide in emerging stocks and currencies associated with the post-Lehman risk appetite hangover. Which is why, yet one more time, that simple issue of sentiment is all important, or using the expession popularised by Keynes "animal spirits".


Carry On Trading

But now we have a new factor entering the scene. The US Federal Reserve, along with many of the world's key central banks, has so reduced interest rates that they are now running only marginally above the zero percent "lower bound", and the Fed is far more concerned with boosting money supply growth to fend of deflation than it is with restraining it to combat inflation. Not only that, Chairman Ben Bernanke looks set to commit the bank to maintain rates at the current level for a considerable period of time.

In this situation, and given the extremely limited rates of annual GDP growth we are likely to see in the US and other advanced economies in the coming years, all that liquidity provision is very likely to exit the first world looking for better yield prospects, and where better to go than to to look for it than those "high yield" emerging market economies.

The Federal Reserve could thus easily find itself in the rather unusual situation of underwriting the nascent recovery in emergent economies like India and Brazil , just as Japan pumped massive liquidity straight into countries like New Zealand and Australia during its experiment with quantitative easing between 2001 and 2006. And the mechanisms through which the money will arrive? Well, they are several, but perhaps the best known and easiest to understand of them is the so called carry trade, which basically works as follows.

Stimulus plans and near-zero interest rates in developed economies boost investor confidence in emerging markets and commodity-rich nations whose interest rates are often in double figures. Using dollars, euros and yen these investors then buy instruments denominated in currencies from countries like India, Brazil, Hungary, Indonesia, South Africa, Turkey, Chile and Peru - which collectively rose around 8% from March 20 to April 10, the biggest three-week gain for such trades since at least 1999 . A straightforward and simple carry-trade transaction would run like this: you borrow U.S. dollars at the three-month London interbank offered rate of (say) 1.13% and use the proceeds to simply buy Brazilian real, leaving the proceeds in a bank to earn Brazil’s three-month deposit rate of 10.51%. That would net anannualized 9.38% - under the assumption that the exchange rate between the two currencies remains stable, but the real, of course, is appreciating against the dollar.

Other options which immediately spring to mind are Turkey, where the key interest rate is currently 9.25 percent, Hungary (9.5 percent) or Russia (12 percent). And the cost of borrowing is steadily falling - overnight euro denominated inter-bank loans hit 0.56 percent last week, down from 3.05 percent six months ago after recent moves by the European Central Bank to cut interest rates and pump liquidity into the banking system. The London interbank offered rate, or Libor, for overnight loans in dollars is thus down to 0.22 percent from 0.4 percent in November. And while the ECB provides the liquidity, the EU Commission and the IMF provide the institutional guarantees which - in the cases of countries like Hungary or Romania - mean that even is such lending is not completely free from default risk, they are at least very well hedged.

Indeed Deustche Bank last week specifically recommended buying Hungarian forint denominated assets, and according to the bank the Russian ruble, the Hungarian forint and the Turkish lira are among the trades which offeri investors the best returns over the next two to three months. Deutsche Bank recommends investors sell the euro against the forint on bets the rate difference will help the Hungarian currency gain around 10 percent over the next three months (rising to 260 from around 285 to the euro when they wrote). Investors should also sell the dollar against the Turkish lira and buy the ruble against the dollar-euro basket, according to their recommendations.

And it isn't only Deutsche Bank who are actively promoting the trade at the moment, at the start of April Goldman Sachs also recommended investors to use euros, dollars and yen to buy Mexican pesos, real, rupiah, rand and Russia rubles. John Normand, head of global currency strategy at JPMorgan, is forecasting a strong surge in long term carry trading as the recovery gains traction. Long trading, he says, is decidedly "underweight" at this point. Long carry trade positions held by Japanese margin traders, betting on gains in the higher-yielding currencies, peaked at $60 billion last July, according to Normand. They were liquidated completely by February, and have subsequently increased to around one third of the previous value (or $20 billion). “Only Japanese margin traders and dedicated currency managers appear to have reinstated longs in carry,” Normand says. “Their exposures are only near long-term averages.”

And Barclays joined the pack this week stating that Brazil’s real, South Africa’s rand and Turkey’s lira offer the “largest upside” for investors returning to the carry trade. A global pickup in investor demand for higher-yielding assets and signs the worst of the global recession is over “bode very well for the comeback of the emerging-market carry trade,” according to analyst Anfrea Kiguel in a recent report from New York. In part as a result of the surge in carry activity the US dollar declined beyond $1.40 against the euro on Friday for the first time since January. Evidently the USD may now be headed down a path which is already well-trodden by the Japanese yen.


India on The Up and Up.


But some of these trades are much riskier than others. Many of the countries in Eastern Europe who currently offer the highest yields are also subject to IMF bailout programmes, so they are with good reason called "risky assets". But others look a lot safer. Take India for example. As Reserve Bank of Indian Governor Duvvuri Subbarao stressed only last week, India’s “modest” dependence on exports will certainly help the economy weather the current global recession and even stage a modest recovery later this year. Of course, "modest" is a relative term, since even during the depths of the crisis India managed to maintain a year on year growth rate of 5.3 percent (Q4 2008), and indeed as Duvvuri stresses, apart from the limited export dependence, India's financial system had virtually no exposure to any kind of "toxic asset".

As mentioned above, the rupee rose 4.9 percent this week to 47.125 per dollar in Mumbai, its biggest weekly advance since March 1996, while the Sensex index rallied 14 percent for its biggest weekly gain since 1992.

And, just to add to the collective joy, even as Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh began his second term, and stock markets soared, analysts were busy rubbing their hands with enthusiasm at the prospect that the new government might set a record for selling off state assets, and thus begin to address what everyone is agreed is now India's outsanding challenge: reducing the fiscal deficit.

Singh, it seems, could sell-off anything up to $20 billion of state assets over the next five years as he tries to reduce the central govenment budget shortfall which is currently running at more than double the government target - it reached 6 percent of gross domestic product in the year ended March 31, well beyond the 2.5 percent government target. The prospect of a wider budget gap prompted Standard & Poor’s to say in February that India’s spending plans were “not sustainable” and threaten that the country's credit rating could be cut again if finances worsen. But just by raising 100 billion rupees from share sales and initial public offerings in the current financial year would reduce the fiscal deficit by an estimated quarter-point, at the stroke of a pen, as it were. And there is evidently plenty more to come from this department.

As a result of the changed perception that the new Indian government will now - and especially with the elections and the worst of the global crisis behind it - seriously start to address the fiscal deficit situation, both S&P and Moody’s Investors Service, have busied themselves emphasising just how the outcome gives India's government a chance to improve its fiscal situation. The poll result gives the government more “political space” to sell stakes in state-run companies and improve revenue, according to Moody’s senior analyst Aninda Mitra, while S&P’s director of sovereign ratings Takahira Ogawa commented that the result means “there is a possibility for the government to implement various measures to reform for further expansion of the economy and for the fiscal consolidation.”

So off and up we go, towards that ever so virtuous circle of better credit ratings, lower interest rates, rising currency values, and ever higher headline GDP growth, which of course helps bring down the fiscal deficit, which helps improve the credit rateing outlook, which helps... oh, well, you know.

And it isn't only India which is exciting investors at the moment. Brazil's central bank President Henrique Meirelles went so far as to warn this week against an “excess of euphoria” in the currency market, implicitly suggesting the bank may engage in renewed dollar purchases to try to slow down the latest three-month rally in the real. The central bank began buying dollars on May 8, and Meirelles’s latest are evidently upping the level of verbal intervention. The real has now climbed 20.5 percent since March 2, the biggest advance among the six most-traded currencies in Latin America, as prices on the country’s commodity exports rebounded and investor demand for emerging-market assets has grown. The currency is up 14 percent this year, more than any other of the 16 major currencies except for South Africa’s rand, reversing the 33 percent drop in the last five months of 2008.

Carry Me Home

Despite a number of outsanding worries about the emerging economies in Eastern Europe, the general idea that countries like India, Brazil, Turkey, Chile, Peru etc are firmly at the top of the list of the economies where current growth conditions are generally favorable seems essentially sound. Additionally, if this sort of argument has any validity at all it is bound to have implications for what is sure to be one of the key problems we will face during the next global upturn: what to do with the financial architecture which we have inherited from the original Bretton Woods agreement (or Bretton Woods II as some like to call it).

The limitations of the current financial architecture have become only too apparent during the present recession, since with both the Eurozone and the US economies contracting at the same time, the currency see-saw between the dollar and the euro has failed to provide any adequate form of automatic stabiliser. And since Japan's economy is in an even more parlous state -deep in recession, and desperate for exports - having to live with a yen-dollar parity which is at levels not seen since the mid 1990s can hardly be fun. This has lead some analysts to start to talk of a new and enhanced role for China's currency, the yuan, in any architectural reform we may initiate. But obviously, beyond the yuan we should also be thinking about the real and the rupee. However,I would like to suggest the problem we now face is a much broader one than simply deciding which currencies should be in the central bank reserve basket, and it concerns the central issue of how to conduct monetary policy in an age of global capital flows. During the last boom, comparatively small open economies like Iceland and New Zealand were on this receiving end, but this time round we face the truly daunting prospect of having global giants thrust into the same position, while the USD gets pinned to the floor, just as the Japanese yen was previously.

The problem is evidenty a structural one. The euro hit 1:40 to the USD on Friday (at a time when Europe's economies are in deeper recession than the US one is), while - as I said - the Brazilian central bank President felt the need to come out and warn against an “excess of euphoria” in the local currency market following an 18% rise in the real over 3 months. Officially, the euro surged as a result of news that the US might receive a downgrade on its AAA credit rating, but this justification hardly bears examination, given that around half of the eurozone economies could be in the same situation. Obviously currency traders live in a world where the most important thing is to "best guess" what the guy next to you is liable to do next, and in this sense the rumour could have played its part, but the real underlying reason for the sudden shift in parities is the return in sentiment we have been seeing since early May, and the massive and cheap liquidity which is on offer in New York.

Of course, the impact spreads far beyond Delhi and Rio. Turkey’s lira is also well up - and has now advanced 10 percent over the last three months - while South Africa’s rand is up 22 percent, making it the best performing emerging-market currency during the same period.

All good "carry" punts these, with Turkey’s benchmark interest rate standing at 9.25 percent, and Brazil’s rate of 10.25 percent. Even the ruble is up sharply, just as Russia's economy struggles to handle the rapidly growing loan default rates. The currency climbed to a four-month high against the dollar on Friday, making for its longest run of weekly gains in almost two years, hitting 31.0887 per dollar at one point, its strongest level since Jan. 12. The ruble was up 3.2 percent on the week - closing with its sixth weekly advance and extending its longest rally since September 2007 - and has risen 16 percent since the end of January. Russia's central bank has cut base interest rates twice since April 24 in an attempt to revive the economy, but the refinancing rate is still 12 percent - well above rates in the EU, the U.S., Japan and even quite attractive in comparison with those on offer in other emerging markets. The basic point here is that carry trade players can leverage interest rate differentials and benefit from the changes in currency valuation that these very trades (along with those made by other participants) produce. So all of this is truly win-win for those who play the game, until, that is, it isn't.

Not all of this is preoccupying - far from it, since the issues arising are in many ways related to the problem I started this article with: namely, who it is who will run the trade and current account deficits and do the necessary consuming, to make all those export-lead recoveries (even in China, please note) possible. Evidently the core problem generated during the last business cycle was associated with the size of the imbalances it threw up, and the impact on liquidity and asset prices that these imbalances had. If I am right in the analysis presented here, then we are all on the point of generating a further, and certainly much larger, set of such imbalances as we let the process rip in the uncordinated and unrestrained fashion we are doing. As you set the problem up, so it will fall. Floating Brazil and India is a very attractive and very desireable proposition. Consumers in those countries can certainly take on and sustain more leveraging. The two countries can even to some extent support external deficits as they develop. But they need to do this in a balanced way, an they do not need distortions. The world does not need more Latvias, Estonias, Irelands or Spains (let alone Icelands, and let alone of the size of a Brazil or an India). So policy decisions are now urgently needed to impose measures and structures which help avoid a repeat of the same in what is now a very imminent future. And despite all the talk of reform, very little has been done in practice. Talk of "tax havens" and the like sounds nice, and is attractive to voters, but all this is on the margin of things. What we need is global architectural reform, and policy coordination at the central bank, and bank regulation level, not to stop the capital flows, but to find a more sophistocated way of managing them.

2 comments:

srisays said...

India may not be exposed as much to the toxic assets but we will have to look at the NPAs of banks. Lending for agriculture is a priority sector lending in India and it has to be sustainable else the spiral that other banks felt after the subprime and housing market crash in US and the subsequent credit crisis could raise its head up here in India. The only difference will be that here it will be farm lending that will cause the damage.

Edward Hugh said...

Hello Srisays,

"The only difference will be that here it will be farm lending that will cause the damage."

Well look, I'm sure the problem of farm lending is a real issue for the farmers who have borrowed, and the distress they feel, and for the regional banks who lend to them, but agriculture is only around 20% of Indian GDP now, even if it does give livelihood to over 65% of the population.

People need to move out of agriculture and into more economically productive activities. And the size of the overall exposure to agriculture is not sufficient to derail the Indian economy at this point.