Tag Archives: Yen

The Defining Issue for Financial Markets

For anyone who has spent time on the open sea, especially in a small craft, you know the sea can be quite the moody mistress. Some days, the gale winds are howling. Some days the sea is as smooth as glass. The financial markets are quite similar.

In late August, the U.S. equity market experienced its first 10% price correction in four years. That ended the third longest period in the history of the market without a 10% correction, so in one sense it was long overdue. But, because the U.S. stock market has been as smooth as glass for years now, it feels as if typhoon winds are blowing.

Cycles define the markets’ very existence. Unfortunately, cycles also define human decision making within the context of financial markets.

Let’s focus on one theme we believe will be enduring and come to characterize financial market outcomes over the next six to 12 months. That theme is currency.

In past missives, we have discussed the importance of global currency movements to real world economic and financial market outcomes. The issue of currency lies at the heart of the recent uptick in financial market “swell” activity. Specifically, the recent correction in U.S. equities began as China supposedly “devalued” its currency, the renminbi, relative to the U.S. dollar.

Before we can look at why relative global currency movements are so important, we need to take a step back. It’s simply a fact that individual country economies display different character. They do not grow, or contract, at the same rates. Some have advantages of low-cost labor. Some have the advantage of cheap access to raw materials. Etc. No two are exactly alike.

Historically, when individual countries felt the need to stimulate (not enough growth) or cool down (too much inflation) their economies, they could raise or lower country-specific interest rates. In essence, they could change the cost of money. Interest rates have been the traditional pressure relief valves between various global economies. Hence, decades-long investor obsession with words and actions of central banks such as the U.S. Fed.

Yet we have maintained for some time now that we exist in an economic and financial market cycle unlike any we have seen before. Why? Because there has never been a period in the lifetime of any investor alive today where interest rates in major, developed economies have been set near academic zero for more than half a decade at least. (In Japan, this has been true for multiple decades.) The near-zero rates means that the historical relief valve has broken. It has been replaced by the only relief valve left to individual countries — relative currency movements.

This brings us back to the apparent cause of the present financial market squall — the supposed Chinese currency devaluation that began several weeks ago. Let’s look at the facts and what is to come.

For some time now, China has wanted its renminbi to be recognized as a currency of global importance — a reserve currency much like the dollar, euro and yen. For that to happen in the eyes of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), China would need to de-link its currency from the U.S. dollar and allow it to float freely (level to be determined by the market, not by a government or central bank). The IMF was to make a decision on renminbi inclusion in the recognized basket of important global currencies in September. In mid-August, the IMF announced this decision would be put off for one more year as China had more “work to do with its currency.” Implied message? China would need to allow its currency to float freely. One week later, China took the step that media reports continue to sensationalize, characterizing China’s action as intentionally devaluing its currency.

In linking the renminbi to the dollar for many years now, China has “controlled” its value via outright manipulation, in a very tight band against the dollar. The devaluation Wall Street has recently focused on is nothing more than China allowing the band in which the renminbi trades against the dollar to widen. With any asset whose value has been fixed, or manipulated, for so long, once the fix is broken, price volatility is a virtual guarantee. This is exactly what has occurred.

China loosened the band by about 4% over the last month, which we believe is the very beginning of China allowing its currency to float freely. This will occur in steps. This is the beginning, not the end, of this process. There is more to come, and we believe this will be a very important investment theme over the next six to 12 months.

What most of the media has failed to mention is that, before the loosening, the renminbi was up 10% against most global currencies this year. Now, it’s still up more than 5%, while over the last 12 months the euro has fallen 30% against the U.S. dollar. Not 4%, 30%, and remarkably enough the lights still go on in Europe. Over the last 2 1/2 years, the yen has fallen 35% against the U.S. dollar. Although it may seem hard to believe, the sun still comes up every morning in Japan. What we are looking at in China is economic and financial market evolution. Evolution that will bring change and, we assure you, not the end of the world.

Financial market squalls very often occur when the markets are attempting to “price in” meaningful change, which is where we find ourselves right now.

What heightens current period investor angst is the weight and magnitude of the Chinese economy, second largest on planet Earth behind the U.S. With a devalued currency, China can theoretically buy less of foreign goods. All else being equal, a cheaper currency means less global buying power. This is important in that, at least over the last few decades, China has been the largest purchaser and user of global commodities and industrial materials. Many a commodity price has collapsed over the last year. Although few may realize this, Europe’s largest trading partner is not the U.S., it’s China. European investors are none too happy about recent relative currency movements.

Relative global currency movements are not without consequence, but they do not spell death and destruction.

A final component in the current market volatility is uncertainty about whether the U.S. Fed will raise interest rates for the first time in more than half a decade. Seriously, would a .25% short-term interest rate vaporize the U.S. economy? Of course not, but if the Fed is the only central bank on Earth possibly raising rates again that creates a unique currency situation. Academically, when a country raises its interest rates in isolation, it makes its currency stronger and more attractive globally. A stronger dollar and weaker Chinese renminbi academically means China can buy less U.S.-made goods. Just ask Caterpillar and John Deere how that has been working out for them lately. Similarly, with a recent drop in Apple’s stock price, are investors jumping to the conclusion that Apple’s sales in China will fall off of the proverbial cliff? No more new iPhone sales in China? Really?

The issue of relative global currency movements is real and meaningful. The change has been occurring for some time now, especially with respect to the euro and the yen. Now it’s the Chinese currency that is the provocateur of global investor angst. Make no mistake about it, China is at the beginning of its loosening of the currency band, not the end. This means relative currency movements will continue to be very important to investment outcomes.

We expect a stronger dollar. That’s virtually intuitive. But a stronger dollar is a double-edged sword — not a major positive for the near-term global economic competitiveness of the U.S., but a huge positive for attracting global capital (drawn to strong currencies). We have seen exactly this in real estate and, to a point, in “blue chip” U.S. equities priced in dollars, for years now.

In addition to a higher dollar, we fully expect a lower Chinese renminbi against the dollar. If we had to guess, at least another 10% drop in the renminbi over next 12 months. Again, the price volatility we are seeing right now is the markets attempting to price in this currency development, much as it priced in the falling euro and yen during years gone by. Therefore, sector and asset class selectivity becomes paramount, as does continuing macro risk control.

Much like a sailor away far too long at sea, the shoreline beckons. We simply need to remember that there is a “price” for being free, and for now that “price” is increased volatility. Without question, relative global currency movements will continue to exert meaningful influence over investment outcomes.

These are the global financial market seas in which we find ourselves.

Investor Concerns: Greece Is the Word

Unless you have been living on a desert island, you are aware that Greece is in the midst of trying to resolve its financial difficulties with European authorities. This is just the latest round in a financial drama that has been playing out for a number of years now. Up to this point, the solution by both euro authorities and Greek leaders has been to delay any type of financial resolution. And that is the exact prescription handed down just a few weeks ago as Greece approached a February month-end debt payment of a magnitude it could not meet. Greece has been given another four months to come up with some type of restructuring plan. At this point, we’ve simply stopped counting how many times euro authorities have kicked the Greek can down the road.

Why all the drama regarding Greece? Greece represents only about 2% of Eurozone GDP. Who cares whether Greece is part of the euro? The Greek economy simply isn’t a big enough piece of the entire euro economy to really matter, is it?

The fact is that the key problems in the Greek drama have very little to do with the Greek economy specifically. The issues illuminate the specific flaw in the euro as a currency and the fact that the euro authorities are very much hoping to protect the European banking system. The reason we need to pay attention is that the ultimate resolution of these issues will have an impact on our investment decision making.

A key characteristic of the euro, which was formed in 1998, is that there is no one overall guarantor of euro area government debt. Think about the U.S. If the U.S. borrows money to fund building bridges in five states, the U.S. government (via the taxpayer) is the guarantor of the debt; it is not the individual debt of the five states involved. Yes, individual U.S. states can take on state-specific debt, but states cannot print money, as can large governments, so there are limiting factors. In Japan, the Japanese government guarantees yen-based government debt. In the U.S., the federal government guarantees U.S. dollar-based government debt. In Europe, there is no one singular “European government debt” guarantor of essentially euro currency government debt. The individual countries are their own guarantors.

The Eurozone has the only common currency on planet Earth without a singular guarantor of government debt. All the euro area governments essentially guarantee their own debt, yet have a common currency and interest rate structure. No other currency arrangement like this exists in today’s global economy. Many have called this the key flaw in the design of the euro. Many believe the euro as a currency cannot survive this arrangement. For now, the jury is out on the question of euro viability, but that question is playing out in country-specific dramas, such as Greece is now facing.

One last key point in the euro currency evolution. As the euro was formed, the European Central Bank essentially began setting interest rate policy for all European countries. The bank’s decisions, much like those of the Fed in the U.S., affected interest rates across the Eurozone economies. Profligate borrowers such as Greece enjoyed low interest rates right alongside fiscally prudent countries like Germany. There is no interest rate differentiation for profligate or prudent individual government borrowers in Europe. Moreover, the borrowing and spending of profligate countries such as Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and, yes, even France, for years benefited the export economies of countries such as Germany — the more these countries borrowed, the better the Germany economy performed.

This set of circumstances almost seemed virtuous over the first decade of the euro’s existence. It is now that the chickens have come home to roost, Greece being just the opening act of a balance sheet drama that is far from over. Even if we assume the Greek debt problem can be fixed, without a single guarantor of euro government debt going forward the flaw in the currency remains. Conceptually, there is only one country in Europe strong enough to back euro area debt, and that’s Germany. Germany’s continuing answer to potentially being a guarantor of the debt of Greece and other Euro area Governments? Nein. We do not expect that answer to change any time soon.

You’ll remember that over the last half year, at least, we have been highlighting the importance of relative currency movements in investment outcomes in our commentaries. The problematic dynamics of the euro has not been lost on our thinking or actions, nor will it be looking ahead.

The current debt problems in Greece also reflect another major issue inside the Eurozone financial sector. Major European banks are meaningful holders of country-specific government debt. Euro area banks have been accounting for the investments at cost basis on their books, as opposed to marking these assets to market value. In early February, Lazard suggested that Greece needs a 50% reduction in its debt load to be financially viable. Germany and the European Central Bank (ECB) want 100% repayment. You can clearly see the tension and just who is being protected. If Greece were to negotiate a 50% reduction in debt, any investor (including banks) holding the debt would have to write off 50% of the value of the investment. At the outset of this commentary, we asked, why is Greece so important when it is only 2% of Eurozone GDP? Is it really Greece the European authorities want to protect, or is it the European banking system?

Greece is a Petri dish. If Greece receives debt forgiveness, the risk to the Eurozone is that Italy, Spain, Portugal, etc. could be right behind it in requesting equal treatment. The Eurozone banking system could afford to take the equity hit in a Greek government debt write-down. But it could not collectively handle Greece, Italy, Spain and other debt write-downs without financial ramifications.

The problem is meaningful. There exist nine countries on planet Earth where debt relative to GDP exceeds 300%. Seven of these are European (the other two are Japan and Singapore):

Debt as % of GDP

IRELAND                                           390 %

PORTUGAL                                       358

BELGIUM                                          327

NETHERLANDS                                325

GREECE                                             317

SPAIN                                                 313

DENMARK                                        302

SWEDEN                                           290

FRANCE                                             280

ITALY                                                 267

As we look at the broad macro landscape and the reality of the issues truly facing the Eurozone in its entirety, what does another four months of forestalling Greek debt payments solve? Absolutely nothing.

How is the Greek drama/tragedy important to our investment strategy and implementation? As we have been discussing for some time now, relative global currency movements are key in influencing investment outcomes. Investment assets priced in ascending currencies will be beneficiaries of global capital seeking both return and principal safety. The reverse is also true. While the Greek debt crisis has resurfaced over the last six months, so, too, has the euro lost 15% of its value relative to the dollar. Dollar-denominated assets were strong performers last year as a result.

The second important issue to investment outcomes, as we have also discussed many a time, is the importance of capital flows, whether they be global or domestic. What has happened in Europe since the Greek debt crisis has resurfaced is instructive. The following combo chart shows us the leading 350 European stock index in the top clip of the chart and the German-only stock market in the bottom.

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Broadly, euro area equities have not yet attained the highs seen in 2014. But German stocks are close to 15% ahead of their 2014 highs. Why? Germany is seen as the most fiscally prudent and financially strong of the euro members. What we are seeing is capital gravitating toward the perception of safety that is Germany, relative to the euro area as a whole. This is the type of capital flow analysis that is so important in the current environment.

The headline media portray the Greek problem as just another country living beyond its means and unable to repay the debts it has accumulated. But the real issues involved are so much more meaningful. They cut to the core of euro viability as a currency and stability in the broad euro banking system. The Greek problem’s resurfacing in the last six months has necessarily pressured the euro as a currency and triggered an internal move of equity capital from the broad euro equity markets to individual countries perceived as strong, such as Germany. This is exactly the theme we have been discussing for months. Global capital is seeking refuge from currency debasement and principal safety in the financial markets of countries with strong balance sheets. For now, the weight and movement of global capital remains an important element of our analytical framework.

Watching outcomes ahead for Greece within the context of the greater Eurozone will be important. Greece truly is a Petri dish for what may be to come for greater Europe. Outcomes will affect the euro as a currency, the reality of the Greek economy, the perceived integrity of the European banking system and both domestic and global euro-driven capital flows. For now, Greece is the word.