Calculating fx forward points

A common misunderstanding we often encounter relates to the calculation of foreign exchange forward points. Foreign exchange forward points are the time value adjustment made to the spot rate to reflect a future date. The forward foreign exchange market is very deep and liquid and is used by an array of participants for trading and hedging purposes. In the corporate world many importers and exporters hedge future foreign currency commitments or forecasts using forward exchange contracts (FECs).

The table below shows a selection of the forward points and outright rates for a number of currency pairs:

Forward points

Table 1: Forward points and outright rates

For example the NZD/USD 1-year forward points are currently -270, while the NZD/USD spot rate is 0.8325. Therefore, at today’s rates a forward rate of 0.8325 – 0.0270 = 0.8055 can be secured for a commitment or forecast in one year’s time. But how did the NZD/USD 1-year forward points come to be -270? The common misunderstanding is that they are traded like the spot rate i.e. based on currency traders’ views for the outlook of a currency’s fundamentals. This is incorrect. FX points are mathematically derived by the prevailing interest rate markets. Using our example of the NZD/USD 1-year forward points the -270 is a result of the 1-year US and NZ interest rate outlook. The NZD/USD is a good example because of the significant interest rate differentials between the two currencies. The aggressive monetary easing policies in the US have resulted in an extremely low interest rate environment. This contrasts with NZ which although has interest rates at historically low levels, they remain well above those of the US. The chart below shows the NZ interest rate yield curve versus the US and the corresponding fx forward points.

NZ and US int rates and fx points

Chart 1: NZ and US interest rates and the NZD/USD forward points

The interest rate market is telling us that the US 1-year swap rate is 0.25% while in NZ it is 3.45%. So how does this equate to -270 fx points?

Example

USD1,000,000 at a spot rate of 0.8325 = NZD1,201,201

If USD1,000,000 is invested for one year at a US interest rate of 0.25% per annum, at the end of one year USD1,000,000 is USD1,002,500.

If NZD1,201,201 is invested for one year at a NZ interest rate of 3.45% per annum, at the end of one year NZD1,201,201 is NZD1,242,643.

The equivalent exchange rate is NZD1,242,643 divided by USD1,002,500 = 0.8067.

0.8067 – 0.8325 = -0.0258 (or -258 fx points in the parlance of the fx markets).

The bid/ask spread of the fx and interest rate markets accounts for the 12 fx point balance. The example serves to provide a “back of the envelope” guide to calculating fx forward points and outright rates.

Even though the calculation of the forward points is mathematically derived from the interest rate market, interest rates themselves are the market’s expectation of the outlook for an economy’s fundamentals i.e. subjective. Therefore the fx forward points are derived from traders positioning on interest rate differentials.

Exporters from countries with higher interest rate environments such as New Zealand and Australia benefit from the negative forward points, while it is a cost to importers. An exporter wants a weak base currency so large negative forward points are an economic advantage. With an upward sloping interest rate yield curve (or more correctly positive interest rate differential) forward points will be more negative the longer the time horizon.

An importer wants a strong currency therefore negative forward points are detrimental to the hedged conversion rate. The impact of negative forward points is a reason that exporters often have longer term hedging horizons compared to importers because the impact of forward points are not penal.

Forward exchange contracts are therefore a flexible, and relatively easy to understand, hedging tool that is commonly used to bring certainty to those grappling with foreign exchange exposures and the volatility of the financial markets.

Scope for Recovery by Australian Dollar Limited as Labor Suffers

The Reserve Bank of Australia cut its key benchmark interest rate to a record low 2.50% earlier this year, highlighting the central bank’s concerns over the sensitivity of the Australian economy to turmoil in emerging markets.

When discussing Australia at the turn of the year, we suggested that: “Now, with rates at all-time lows, it’s a good moment to reflect on why we’re in the current predicament. After all, dovish monetary policy is only implemented when worries of an economic slowdown persist.”

These concerns were well-informed, as the Australian labor market has only deteriorated over the course of the year, forcing the Reserve Bank of Australia to cut its main interest rate to a record low of 2.50% at its August policy meeting. This is a significant step lower from the 4.75% rate employed as recently as November 2011; an aggressive rate cut cycle the RBA has employed, indeed.

Nevertheless, it’s evident that concerns surrounding Australia will continue. The country’s most important sector, mining, continues to show signs of slowdown, and government advisors have reluctantly admitted that the global commodity supercycle – driven by rapidly growing emerging markets – may be finished.

We continue to believe that the changing economic climate of Australia will play a negative influence on the Australian Dollar. The labor market remains a primary concern, and has proven to be a major negative influence on the Australian Dollar in recent months:

AUDUSD_unemployment

Over the past two-plus years, after the AUDUSD peak near $1.1100 in the summer of 2011, the RBA’s aggressive easing cycle, in part to help soothe fears over the labor distress, has driven the AUDUSD down to its lowest exchange rate since September 2010, below $0.9000 in August.

Further pressure on the Australian labor market, and thus the Australian Dollar, seems likely. Whereas the AUDUSD was quite stable near $1.0500 for several months while labor markets deteriorated, it’s clear that reality has set in. Despite several rate cuts since November 2011, Australia’s unemployment rate has increased from 4.9% in April 2011 to 5.8% in August 2013, the highest rate since August 2009.

Scope for recovery in the labor market is limited at best as long as the commodity cycle slowdown persists. Data compiled by the RBA in August showed that base metals prices, perhaps most indicative of economic strength in the mining sector, sunk to their lowest level since late-2009 by midyear, an ominous sign considering the time before prices had reached that level it was on the way lower by another 30% amid the global financial crisis of 2008.

RBA CPI

Base metals prices continue to be the guiding light for Australia – and should they remain subdued going forward, we suspect that dovish guidance will remain in place at the RBA, serving as a consistent, bearish influence on the Aussie for the remainder of 2013.

Steel, iron ore and coking coal

Rate Differentials and Expected Policy Action by the RBNZ Keep the Kiwi Looking Up

Reserve Bank of New Zealand Governor Graeme Wheeler currently faces a problem. On one hand, exporters are losing their competitive edge as the New Zealand Dollar has strengthened. Industrialists have called for the RBNZ to try to keep rates pointed lower in order to weaken the currency. Certainly, ever since the Federal Reserve suggested that it might begin to normalize policy, New Zealand government bond yields have increased.

Given the implications of the Fed removing liquidity from global markets, bond markets have been under pressure. Considering that investors had piled into those assets with any yield over the past few years, these same assets – including New Zealand government bonds – have seen their yields spike higher faster than their policymakers can deal with (as seen in emerging markets).

Bond spread_NZDUSD

Over the past several months, the results of the Fed’s taper speculation have provoked the NZ-US 10Y yield to widen to their largest differentials all year. This will be important for future Kiwi strength: widening interest rate differentials are supportive of a stronger currency. The recent divergence could be due to the broader repricing of risk assets to compensate for a slower easing Fed. But domestic New Zealand data is pushing rates up higher naturally.

Rate increases_NZDUSD

Over the past three months, RBNZ Governor Wheeler has used his press conferences not to make a concerted attempt to weaken his currency but rather to highlight the optimistic points on the economy. In fact, currency swaps traders are near their most bullish on the New Zealand Dollar all year, with respect to the number of basis points priced in. If this pricing mechanism exceeds 90-bps, it will be closing in on its most bullish reading since the New Zealand Dollar peaked in the summer of 2011.

Why is this information useful for hedging? If the swaps market is pricing in future rate hikes by a central bank, it might be an appropriate time to hedge against further upside risk in the currency.


Roots of the Spreading Currency War: Part 2

Quantitative easing (QE) became the preferred non-standard policy tool among central bankers starting in 2007 as more and more large central banks reached the zero interest rate policy bound and were forced to become more creative. Regardless of where you stand on the issue, it goes without saying that without the implementation of QE, the global economy would still be in tatters. 

Over the past several years, the Fed hasn’t been alone in its efforts to weaken its currency to help domestic exporters. For example, the Bank of England has expanded its monetary base by five times since 2008; the Swiss National Bank implemented a currency floor for the Swiss Franc against the Euro to stabilize trade.

In 2013, the most notable offender has been the Bank of Japan, who in an effort to pull the country out of a two decade long deflationary spiral (Japan has been (in)famously mired in a more-than-two decades long deflation spiral) has pulled the rug from under the Yen quite literally. From January 1, 2008 to November 14, 2012, the Yen had rallied by +43.21% against the British Pound; +38.14% against the Euro; and +28.97% against the US Dollar. Since mid-November, when it became clear that Shinzo Abe would rise to power as prime minister, the Yen has been ‘competitively devalued’: it lost -20.42% to the British Pound; -26.69% to the Euro; and -23.52% against the U.S. Dollar.

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Clearly there is a distortive effect by ultra-easing policies on FX markets. The effects are not limited, however, as investors’ risk tolerance is completely altered. Consider the performance of the U.S. equity market the S&P 500 (yellow) compared to the size of the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet ($M) (white). The rally in U.S. equities – the benchmark for high-grade risky assets – can be wholly attributed to the rising Fed’s balance sheet, as the chart above implies.

Now that the BoJ has engaged in QE, the Nikkei 225 stock index is soaring, up +32% in 2013 thus far. With the BoJ’s QE plans in place for at least the next two years, investors will continue to jettison Yen-denominated assets in search of yield. But this brings us back to the earlier point about trade: the weaker Yen means that major trading partners, such as the United States, the Euro-zone, and Australia and New Zealand, will have to enact counter measures to prevent their domestic exporters from bearing the pain.

On several occasions early in the year RBNZ Governor Wheeler commented that the elevated New Zealand Dollar exchange rate was hurting the nation’s manufacturers, while noting his desire to “smooth the peaks” in the high yielding currency. These efforts have been minor thus far, and yet the New Zealand Dollar is barely dislodged. There’s little reason to think the RBNZ is going to be able to turn the tides anytime soon.

If there is one thing we can expect with a fair degree of certitude, it’s that competitive devaluations are here to stay for the next several years. The Fed is doing it, the BoJ is doing it, and as time passes, more and more central banks will be forced to engage in ultra-easy monetary policy.

Roots of the Spreading Currency War: Part 1

The global economy has seen fits of growth and contraction the past few years, with the developed Western economies struggling to regain solid footing. In the post-global financial crisis world, emerging markets, specifically the Asian-Pacific region, has been a driver for global growth. But if we step back from the trees and look at the forest, it’s clear that without central bank interventions, the global economy would be in much worse shape.

Since late-2011, if you turned on the TV, you probably heard pundits describe monetary policies being implemented around the world as stoking a “currency war” between developing economies. Mention the phrases “QE” and “currency war” in the same sentence and you’ll likely hear one of two answers: the Federal Reserve fired the first shots; while others, especially more recently, have pointed to the Bank of Japan as the most egregious offender.

Regardless if it was the Fed or the BoJ, the fact remains that most major central banks are currently engaged in or are moving closer to policies that result in the devaluation of their currency. Accordingly, it’s best to get acclimated with the idea of a “currency war” because it’s going to be showing up in newspapers and on financial television shows for the next several years. For good reason: the budding currency war impacts short-term speculators, bonafide hedgers, and long-term investors alike.

Recently, the Reserve Bank of New Zealand entered the fray, with Governor Graeme Wheeler acknowledging that the central bank had intervened in the market on various occasions since February. Reports have circulated that the RBNZ sold between N$30M and N$200M during its intervention efforts, which we can say retrospectively had short-term bearish implications for the Kiwi. Governor Wheeler has an incentive to try and weaken the New Zealand Dollar: its elevated exchange rate across the G7 currencies makes New Zealand products less competitive.

Macroeconomic theory states that a weaker domestic currency makes domestic goods more appealing to foreign consumers, who then consume more of the domestic good rather than their own country’s goods. The increased exports from the domestic country to the foreign country lead to a trade balance surplus, leading to higher growth in the domestic economy and weaker growth in the foreign economy. Thus, any form of an intentional devaluation to a currency – a competitive devaluation – is a shot fired in the currency war.

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While the RBNZ’s participation in the currency war will likely be a futile effort, the steps taken by the BoJ are far from immaterial. The combined efforts of the Fed and the BoJ alone the past few months have sent the aggregate global stimulus pool from $13,700B to near $14,000B between early-March and early-May. These policies are likely to continue into the near-future, with the Fed printing $85B/month to absorb agency MBS and U.S. Treasuries, while the BoJ has pledged to inject approximately ¥140T (¥7T/month).

What does this mean for the New Zealand Dollar? For one, it means that the RBNZ is a small fish in a pond with much bigger fish.

The next article takes a look at how QE distorts investor decision making, and how the BoJ’s interpretation of aggressive easing will impact the Asian-Pacific currencies.

Why Timing is Key for Hedging!

Just like everything else in life – from barbequing, to merging into traffic, to releasing new products during certain economic cycles – timing is absolutely crucial in hedging foreign exchange exposure. The best way to know when to hedge or not is by looking at a chart – yes, it’s that simple!

Take the NZDUSD pair from January 2003 to December 2009:

NZD/USD Spot Rate

In April 2005, the NZDUSD moved to new all-time highs, having broken the previous one set over a year earlier. At this time, it wouldn’t have been wise to hedge against further new highs; but taking on a hedge for a downside risk would have been reasonable. The same can be said about the NZDUSD in January 2009 – it had moved to its lowest exchange rate in over six-years – it might not have been appropriate to hedge against further downside risks, but instead more proper to hedge against upside risks (hindsight being 20/20, this would have been a wise idea).

For example, in January 2008, it would have been a good time for a New Zealand company hedge payments made in U.S. Dollars, because were the NZDUSD to depreciate in value, the more money the firm would have to pay. If in January 2008, the New Zealand company decided not to hedge US$10 million in payments due a year later, it would have seen its cost rise from N$12.5 million (NZDUSD = 0.8000) to N$20 million (NZDUSD = 0.5000). By not hedging, the New Zealand firm would have had to pay out an extra N$7.5 million!

The next blog post will illustrate how market positioning can be used in timing.

Hedging, and a deeper look into the types of Financial Hedges

One of the popular misnomers about hedging is that it is a costly, time-consuming, complicated process. This is not true!

At the end of the day, there are two different types of hedges: natural hedging and financial hedging. It is not uncommon for companies to use one or both methods to implement their hedging strategies in order to protect their bottom line from currency risk.

Natural hedging involves reducing the difference between receipts and payments in the foreign currency. For example, a New Zealand firm exports to Australia and forecasts that it will receive A$10 million over the next year. Over this period, it expects to make several payments totaling A$3 million; the New Zealand firm’s expected exposure to the Australian Dollar is A$7 million. By implementing natural hedging techniques, the New Zealand firm borrows A$3 million, while subsequently increasing acquisition of materials from Australian suppliers by A$3 million. Now, the New Zealand firm’s exposure is only A$1 million. If the New Zealand firm wanted to eliminate nearly all transaction costs, it could open up production in Australia entirely.

Financial hedging involves buying and selling foreign exchange instruments that are dealt by banks and foreign exchange brokers. There are three common types of instruments used: forward contracts, currency options, and currency swaps.

Forward contracts allow firms to set the exchange rate at which it will buy or sell a specified amount of foreign currency in the future. For example, if a New Zealand firm expects to receive A$1 million in excess of what it forecasts to spend every quarter, it can enter a forward contract to sell these Australian Dollars, at a predetermined rate, every three-months. By offsetting the A$1 million with forward contracts every month, nearly all transaction costs are eliminated.

Currency options tend to be favorable for those firms without solidified plans, i.e., a company that is bidding on a contract. Currency options give a company the right, but not the obligation, to buy or sell currency in the future at a specified exchange rate and date. Upfront costs are common with currency options, which can deter small- and medium-sized firms, but the costs are for good reason: currency options allow firms to benefit from favorable exchange rate movement. Like interest rate swaps, whose lives can range from 2-years to beyond 10-years, currency swaps are a long-term hedging technique against interest rate risk, but unlike interest rate swaps, currency swaps also manage risk borne from exchange rate fluctuations.

Exchange rate volatility can affect a company’s hedging strategy – the next post will cover why timing is key.

The Benefits of Hedging, and Managing FX Risk: Part 2

Managing this FX risk faced by importers and exporters all over the globe today is a three-step process: identify FX risk; develop a strategy; and utilized the proper instruments/strategies to hedge the risk.

Identify FX Risk

As explained in the previous blog post, the most common type of risk faced by firms is transaction risk. For a New Zealand exporting company paid in Australian Dollars, measuring FX risk entails determining how many Australian Dollars it expects to receive over the coming quarter (whatever the period of business may be), versus the money the New Zealand firm will need to make payments in Australian Dollars over the same period. Simply put, this difference is the amount that needs to be hedged.

Developing a Strategy

Developing a hedging strategy necessitates that the following questions be answered: when should FX exposure be hedged; what tools/instruments are available under the current circumstances; and how will the performance of the hedge be measured? Developing a strategy is contingent on where in the process a firm is (see flow chart below).

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Using the Proper Hedging Instrument

Implementing the proper hedging strategy involves a review of the company’s policies as well as the intentions of the hedge. Hedges can vary from something simple like purchasing the foreign currency, to more round about ways like purchasing commodities in the country where the company’s products are sold.

We will discuss different types of hedges – what the proper hedging instrument is – in the next post.

The Benefits of Hedging, and Managing FX Risk: Part 1

Many small- and medium-sized firms engaging in import and/or export activity tend not to hedge. The reasons not to hedge come in all shapes and sizes: it’s too complex; it’s too costly; there’s a misconception that it is speculation; or even that that firms don’t know about hedging tools and strategies available to them. And in the case that companies don’t hedge despite being aware of its benefits – the excuse is often that exchange rates might even hold steady! These are costly, misguided beliefs!

Many studies show that hedging is a necessary activity for firms operating in the contemporary globalized economy. Benefits include:

– Increase ability to forecast future cash flows

– Minimize the impact of exchange rate volatility on profits

– Diminish the need to attempt to forecast exchange rates

– Helps ‘buy time’ for a company to adjust its marketing and sales strategies should the domestic currency rise in value, thereby reducing the firm’s competiveness abroad

Needless to say, if a firm has the financial ability to hedge at a reasonable cost, there’s no reason not to! Essentially, hedging is like FX insurance.

The next blog post will cover the steps involved with hedging.

Explaining Different Types of Exposure Risk

Importers and exporters alike face foreign exchange risk, or currency risk, when engaging in economic activity outside of their domestic currency. As explained in an earlier blog post, currency risk materializes for exporters when exchange rate volatility results in the company repatriating fewer revenues abroad, when the domestic currency strengthens relative to the foreign currency. For importers, this risk is the exact opposite: currency risk materializes when the domestic currency weakens relative to the foreign currency.

When shifts in foreign exchange rates are not hedged against, firms unnecessarily take on transaction exposure, or FX risk that negatively impacts cash flows. Typically, small- and medium-sized firms do not hedge against transaction exposure, despite the negative impacts it may have on profitability. Consider the FX relationship between two closely knit economies, Australia and New Zealand: the AUDNZD exchange rate has been as high as 1.3277 (December 2011) and as low as 1.2370 (October 2012) over the past year.

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This exchange rate volatility demonstrates why hedging is necessary. Let’s say that a New Zealand firm sold A$100,000 worth of product in Australia in April 2012, when the AUDNZD traded at 1.2600. Given the exchange rate, the New Zealand firm would expect to receive N$79,365 in return. However, if hedging wasn’t utilized, and the New Zealand firm repatriated its funds in July 2012 when the AUDNZD traded at 1.2950, it would only receive N$77,519 in return. By not hedging, the New Zealand firm cost itself N$1,846.

There are two other main types of currency risk posed to importers and exporters: accounting exposure and economic exposure. Accounting exposure comes about when firms have liabilities overseas, and must convert the foreign denominated liabilities back into the domestic currency. Unless exchange rates remain stable (a less common occurrence over the past few years), the liability conversion results in either gains or losses. Economic exposure tends to be limited to firms only operating domestically. For example, if a New Zealand firm only sells at home, but the New Zealand Dollar gains in value, consumers might look to competitors overseas given increased purchasing power; despite not being a participant in international markets, the shift in exchange rates could still have a negative impact on business.

The next post will discuss why it is thus important to hedge, and what the necessary steps are for a company to manage its foreign exchange risk.