Don’t shoot the messenger

We are only a week or so past 30 June (a common balance date for many Hedgebook clients) and already we are fielding questions/comments regarding the big movements in the mark-to-market valuations of our clients’ portfolios. The questions have nothing to do with the accuracy of the valuations but mostly around, “why has this happened?” Many of the big movements relate to our clients that hedge their interest rate risk via interest rate swaps.

It is no surprise given the sharp downward movements we have seen in the New Zealand and Australian yield curves over the last few months (see charts). A 1% move on a 5 year $5 million swap will result in a $250,000 move in the mark-to-market. Depending on the size of your swap portfolio, and the tenor of the swaps, the moves can be material.

NZD swap movements

AUD swap movements

An interest rate swap is a valuable hedging tool which helps companies manage their interest rate risk. Many companies have treasury policies which force them to have a proportion of fixed and floating interest rate risk which helps with certainty of interest cost as well as smoothing sharp interest rate movements, both up and down. However, there is also a requirement to mark-to-market swaps, and for many to post these changes to their profit and loss account. Some companies negate this profit and loss volatility by hedge accounting, but many don’t which often requires some explanation to senior management, directors and investors.

For publicly listed companies the impact, both real and perceived, of large movements in financial instrument valuations is even more critical. The requirement for continuous disclosure means that a large move in these valuations may require the issue of a profit warning, as we have recently seen from Team Talk, the telecommunications company. Team Talk’s shares dropped 6.3% on the back of the hit taken by a revaluation of interest rate swaps. The company noted that the change in the value of the interest rate swap portfolio was due to “wholesale interest rates falling significantly in the period”.

Equally we have a number of private companies and local governments who have been concerned at the change in their valuations and how they are going to be explained further up the tree. Having constant visibility over these changes will at least forearm any difficult conversations, as opposed to relying on the bank’s month end valuations.

Whilst Hedgebook won’t help improve mark-to-market valuations, it does assist with companies keeping abreast of changes in the value of swap portfolios on any given day. This is pretty much a “must have” for publicly listed companies that have the responsibility of continuous disclosure but forewarned is forearmed and many others are also seeing the benefit of having access to mark-to-market valuations at any time.

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.

End of year derivative valuations improve for borrowers

The increase in interest rates over 2013 means that the 31 December 2013 valuations of borrower derivatives such as interest rate swaps will look much healthier compared to a year ago. The global economy certainly appears to have turned a corner through 2013 and this is being reflected in financial markets expectations for future interest rates i.e. yield curves are higher. As interest rates collapsed after the onset of the GFC many borrowers took advantage of what were, at the time, historically low levels. Base interest rates i.e. ignoring credit, were compelling and borrowers increased their fixed rate hedging percentages locking in swap rates for terms out to ten years. Unfortunately, as the global economy sank further into recession, interest rates fell further than most market participants expected. Consequently, derivatives such as interest rate swaps moved further out-of-the-money creating large negative mark-to-market positions.

The unprecedented steps taken by central banks in an effort to shore up business and consumer confidence, protect/create jobs and jump start lack lustre economies pushed interest rates lower for much longer. Through 2013 the aggressive monetary policy easing undertaken since 2008 (by the US in particular) has started to show signs that the worst of the Great Recession is behind us. The Quantitative Easing experiment from the US Federal Reserve’s Chairman Ben Bernanke appears to be a success (only time will confirm this). The labour market has strengthened, as well as GDP, in 2013 allowing a gradual reduction in Quantitative Easing to begin. Although the US Central Bank has been at pains to point out that the scaling back of QE does not equate to monetary policy tightening, merely marginally “less loose”,           the financial markets were very quick to reverse the ultra low yields that had prevailed since 2008.   The US 10-year treasury yield is the benchmark that drives long end yields across every other country so when bond markets in the US started to aggressively sell bond positions, prices dropped and yields increased globally. As the charts below show all the major economies of the world now have a higher/steeper yield curve than they did a year ago reflecting expectations for the outlook for interest rates. For existing borrower derivative positions the negative mark-to-markets that have prevailed for so long are either much less out-of-the-money, or are moving into positive mark-to-market territory.

Of the seven currencies that are included in the charts below, all display increases in the mid to long end of the curve i.e. three years and beyond, to varying degrees. Japan continues to struggle having been in an economic stalemate for 15-years so the upward movement in interest rates has been muted. The other interesting point is the Australian yield curve which shows that yields at the short end are actually lower at the end of the year than they were at the start of the year. Australia managed to avoid recession after the GFC, a beneficiary of the massive stimulus undertaken by China and the ensuing demand for Australia’s hard commodities. However, as China’s economy subsequently slowed and commodity prices fell, the recession finally caught up with Australia and the Official Cash Rate (OCR) has been slashed in 2013, hence short-term rates are lower than where they started the year.

As 31 December 2013 Financial Statements are completed there will be many CFOs relieved to see the turning of the tide in regards to the revaluation of borrower derivatives.

2012 to 2013 yield curve movements

Mis-selling of swaps case dismissed

Further to our article posted last week, there has been more evidence to confirm that borrowers crying about “mis-selling” of swaps is not going to garner sympathy in the courts. A sophisticated borrower, or an entity with access to expert advice, cannot lay blame at the door of the banks for their own misjudgments for what have been in hindsight poor hedging decisions. http://bit.ly/1at7pk0

Interpreting Possible Fed Taper Scenarios

The US economy slowed in the months since the idea of QE3 tapering was first floated. In light of recent price developments, we examine the case: to taper or not to taper?

The Federal Reserve’s balance sheet has jumped by over $3 trillion since the global financial crisis erupted in 2008. QE1, the first large scale asset purchase (LSAP) program was bold: it mind as well as saved the entire global economy. Just how bold? Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke won TIME Magazine’s coveted “Person of the Year” anointment in 2009.

QE2 was similarly successful, but not met without its critiques. A $600 billion bond-buying program was nothing to shake a stick at; it propelled global equity markets higher from November 2010 through June 2011, before the Euro-Zone crisis decided to wake up and the U.S. lost its ‘AAA’ rating at Standard & Poor’s for continued political brinkmanship (which continues today).

QE3 has proven to be the least effective and most controversial easing plan to date, more so than the even bolder measures taken in Japan by the government and the Bank of Japan, collectively known as ‘Abenomics.’ When the Fed announced QE3 in September 2012, market pundits were convinced that U.S. yields would plummet and the U.S. Dollar would be thrashed – more of the same of QE1 and QE2. QE3 was dubbed “QE-infinity” given its open-ended nature. But instead, with the U.S. economy improving, and yields shooting up in favor of a stronger U.S. Dollar, there’s growing support inside and outside of the Fed for a reduction in QE3.

There are several reasons to taper and not to taper, and they will be weighed by the Fed at its future meetings as the central bank eventually winds down its purchases. On the positive side, the fiscal drag thanks to the budget sequestration has proven much less daunting than previously forecasted, and the U.S. fiscal deficit is falling at its fastest rate in over 50 years. The U.S. unemployment rate is now at 7.0%, as low as it’s been since 2008.

The negatives are evident as well. Labor market growth has slowed in recent months, and Nonfarm Payrolls figures have eroded through midyear. Consumption has started to fall, and that may be a symptom of recently higher interest rates; higher borrowing costs reduce disposable income, and with wage growth dead, it is likely that higher rates remain a negative influence on the U.S. economy. These consumption fears have manifested in soft inflation figures throughout 2013.

Whether or not the Fed tapers QE3 will be determined shortly, but given the meteoric rise in U.S. yields the past several months, any outcome – even a $15B taper – could provoke a pullback. Consider that within the past six months, the U.S. Treasury 10-year note yield was as low as 1.631% on May 2, and had risen to as high as 2.979% on September 5 – over a 40% increase.

We thus suggest: if the Fed decides only on a modest taper $0B-10B/month, there is a significant scope for U.S. yields to pullback. Between $10B-20B/month, recent downside pressures in emerging markets and upside pressures in U.S. yields will remain; these will continue to manifest into further emerging market FX and high yielding FX weakness.

European Growth Rebounds and Bolsters Euro Turnaround

This post will discuss the improving economic conditions that have started to emerge from the Euro-Zone. Policymakers have a difficult task of balancing a diverse regional economy marked by declining rates of production, consumption, inflation, and overall growth, all of which are exacerbated by a recently-strong Euro.

The Euro-Zone has backed away from the brink of collapse – for now. The recession that’s gripped the region since the 2Q’12 appears to be abating, with the contraction appeared to having bottomed in the first half of 2013.

Euro 10 yr bond spreads

The rebound, in its entirety, can be attributed to the European Central Bank’s efforts to reduce financial risk in the region in the summer of 2012, when it announced its outright monetary transactions (OMT) program, essentially an unlimited safety net for Euro-Zone countries facing high borrowing costs in trading markets.

Euro GDP

The Euro, with the tail-risk premium of a break up very-much diminished, has sparkled amid the turn in growth prospects. After bottoming just above $1.2000 against the US Dollar in July 2012, the Euro has spent much of 2013 trading above $1.3000, trading as high as $1.3832 on October 25. The resiliency of the Euro is commendable two-fold: first, not only due to warding off breakup threats; but also because the US yields have risen sharply thanks to the Fed’s upcoming reduction in QE3.

Euro PMI

The rebound in regional economic activity, of course underpinned by stability in peripheral bond markets, may continue through the remainder of 2013 and into early-2014, if incoming PMI data is accurate. In fact, the last time we discussed the Euro-Zone crisis, manufacturing and services PMI figures from across the region were struggling below 50, the demarcation between growth and contraction.

In February 2012, only German PMI Services showed growth, while the other seven gauges tracked (manufacturing and services for Germany, the Euro-Zone, France, and Italy, each) were contracting. Indeed, our last commentary was near the “bottom”; and now five of the eight PMI readings are in growth territory (see chart above). Further sustained signs of economic progress in the region will only further serve as a bullish catalyst for the Euro.

Going forward, political risk is what could undermine the Euro. Corruption in Spain and Italy threatens the governments (the latter especially), while record or near-record high unemployment rates across the Euro-Zone will only serve as a constant reminder as to how far the region needs to go before “recovery” can be declared. Depending on what the Fed does over the 4Q’13 – will it taper? by how much? in what increments? – the EURUSD is positioned for the time being to finish the year above $1.3300 so long as political pressures remain subdued and further signs of European ‘green shoots’ emerge.

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.


The End of the Fed’s QE and its Impact on Markets: Part 1

This is the first of two posts on the impact of the end of the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing (QE) program on markets. The recent iteration, QE3, is expected to slow over the next few months. This first article will examine what has happened to U.S. financial instruments and what to expect going forward.

On May 22, 2013, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke tapped his microphone in front of a U.S. Congressional testimony and said, “If we see continued improvement and we have confidence that that is going to be sustained, then in the next few meetings, we could take a step down in our pace of purchases.”

With the first hints of ending the Fed’s most recent iteration of QE3 – a combined $85B in monthly asset purchases ($40B in agency mortgage-backed securities, $45B in outright U.S. Treasuries purchases) – a tectonic shift in global markets began. As is often the case, bond markets have led the way ever since late-May.

US Economy Improves

The blue area on the above chart highlights the performance of the S&P 500 and the U.S. Treasury 10-year note yield between May 22 (when Fed Chairman Bernanke first warned about “tapering”) and June 19 (when the Federal Reserve’s official policy statement suggested that a reduction in QE3 could occur at some point over the next several months.

The area highlighted is important because it frames the QE3 taper conversation in context of a strengthening US economy. After mid-June, US economic data started to disappoint. Ironically, this has been due to…higher yields (interest rates).

Indeed, a stronger U.S. economy prompted the Fed to look to wind down QE3, pushing up yields, which in turn caused the economy to slow down during the summer. Likewise concerns that the Fed has begun to see certain asset classes as too ‘bubbly’ – bonds in particular after the Fed has added over $3 trillion to its balance sheet over the past five years – exacerbated rising yields.

This remains a logical reaction: the largest buyer of U.S. Treasuries the past five years is suggesting that it will reduce its uptake; demand will fall and price will too as a result. Market participants have been simply front-running the Fed by selling their U.S. Treasuries holdings ahead of any official announcement.

Outside of the shaded area on the chart, there is an observable pattern: even as the S&P 500 has scrapped its way back towards all-time highs, it struggles mightily when U.S. yields move higher. Only when U.S. yields have consolidated over several days or weeks since early-July – in particular the U.S. Treasury 10-year note yield as seen on the chart – has the S&P 500 been able to advance. (This link will remain true, even if the Fed chooses not to taper; lower yields will boost stock prices.)

The consequences of the Fed’s plans to reduce QE3 have serious implications for financial markets across the world, not just in the United States. Indeed, other asset classes’ own barometers of risk – in FX markets, the “carry trade” such as the NZDJPY or NZDUSD pairs – are showing signs of increased instability.

The next post on the end of the Federal Reserve’s QE3 will focus on the impact on the “carry trade,” which the New Zealand Dollar finds itself in the crosshairs. We will examine the outcomes for a reduction in QE3 and how it might impact FX markets.

The Euro-zone Debt Crisis’ (Diminished) Impact on the Euro: Part 3

This is the third post in a series of four on recent economic, financial, and political developments in the Euro-zone rooted in the sovereign debt crisis. This third post will continue the examination of the economic challenges resulting from the crisis and how regional policymakers intend on addressing them.

Keeping in mind the chart from the first post in this series, the chart below gives prescient insight into how the ECB’s future policy actions will drive the Euro. We know this to be the case because market participants have already exhausted their enthusiasm towards peripheral European debt, and if yields creep back up as the economics remain a lingering problem, there is only one option for the ECB: expand its balance sheet.

ECB Balance Sheet

The above chart shows the ECB’s total balance sheet assets (€B) (white) plotted against the EURUSD (yellow – inverted Y-axis). The relationship expressed suggests that the greater the size of the ECB’s balance sheet, the weaker the Euro is versus the U.S. Dollar. We actually can even take away the point that as the ECB’s balance sheet contracted significantly (approximately €500B) between late-December and late-April, the EURUSD only rallied slightly. However, as the ECB’s balance sheet expanded dramatically in late-2011 through mid-2012, the EURUSD fell in line.

Accordingly, with yields suppressed in the near-term, we suggest that any further action the ECB takes will necessarily result in the reexpansion of its balance sheet, which will weaken the Euro in the short-term, despite the implication of longer-term benefits (market participants will need to see it to believe it before they can buy into a stronger Euro). In recent weeks, as significant PMI survey reports fell below consensus forecasts and evidence of increased erosion in Italian, Greek, and Spanish labor markets was released, chatter has arisen the ECB is exploring the idea of implementing a program similar to the Federal Reserve’s TALF, or Troubled Asset Relief Program, in 2008.

The TALF absorbed $200B of bad loans from American banks beginning in late-2008, thereby allowing them to unfreeze credit and resume lending to individuals and smaller enterprises. The ECB hopes to replicate the results with a potential SME lending program, or a facility for small- and medium-sized enterprises to restore credit flow to the Euro-zone economy. The program could take the shape of outright loans, which would likely have an admittedly smaller impact on the Euro and even could be positive. But what’s more likely is that the ECB utilizes the tried and true model of the Fed, opens its balance sheet and absorbs bad debt, and lets the Euro’s exchange rate suffer.

This may not be bad. According to data manipulated by Barclay’s Capital, a -10% decline in the EURUSD exchange rate would help boost Euro-zone exporters’ competitive edge, leading to a +0.75% to +0.80% boost in GDP. Long-term, when the Euro-zone economy recovers, so too will the Euro. But in the near-term, any depreciation that takes place will be at the hand of a very willing ECB – President Draghi said last week that the central bank stands “ready to act” – an ECB that will sacrifice its balance sheet for the sake of restoring credit flow to the Euro-zone. Continued downside pressure on the Euro into the 3Q’13 is likely as a result.

The final article in this series will examine the political aspect of the crisis and the upcoming calendar of Euro-zone-specific events that all market participants, both speculators and bonafide hedgers alike, will need to be aware of over the coming months.

How Will the Aussie and the Kiwi be affected by ‘Slowing’ Chinese Growth?

This post will discuss Chinese growth, the recent decline in base metals’ prices, and the outlook for the Australian and New Zealand Dollars.

The story of China’s “hard landing” is an easy sell: excess liquidity in the Chinese financial system, thanks to the People Bank of China’s massive expansionary monetary policy over the past few years, will stoke inflation; and then the PBoC will be forced to tighten policy too quickly, ensuring what is known as a liquidity trap, choking off growth far too rapidly.

But the naysayers have been proven wrong thus far. The 4Q’12 annualized Chinese GDP figure came in at +7.9% from 7.6% in the 3Q’12, and growth is expected to have a floor near +7.5%, according to estimates provided to Bloomberg News back in December. As always, we look to the PMI Manufacturing index, as well as base metals’ prices (the literal building blocks of society come from base metals), as forward indicator of Chinese growth prospects. The signs aren’t welcoming going forward.

Chinese PMI-manufacturing and iron ore spot

Iron Ore is a strong indicator of future growth prospects because it is required in the process to make steel; and steel, of course, is the preferred material to construct larger buildings, making it a popular resource in emerging market economies like China. Over the past several months, Iron Ore prices rallied quickly; but in February, prices have started to pull back as the Chinese PMI Manufacturing index has eased. Not only does this mean China could see slower growth going into mid-2013, but so too could Australia and New Zealand, as two regional economies for which China is their number one trading partner.

AUDUSD v RBA   NZDUSD v RBNZ

On their own, Australia and New Zealand are very different economies and countries. But in the broad context of global finance, their currencies are very alike – both are considered to be high beta commodity currencies, given the higher interest rates offered by their respective central banks. Considering where the market is pricing in rate expectations for the Australian Dollar over the next 12-months, it appears that the Australian Dollar is below fair value; on the other hand, the New Zealand Dollar is trading slightly rich relative to its interest rate expectations.

In the context of Chinese growth, Australia is more likely to be directly affected than New Zealand, so Iron Ore, Australia’s top export, serves as a strong proxy for growth hopes for China. At this point in time, given the signal in not just Iron Ore, but Copper as well (which has fallen back very sharply the past several weeks), it appears that the Australian and New Zealand Dollars could be poised for continued weakness throughout the 1H’13, before turning around and strengthening in the 2H’13, especially against the European currencies. The AUDUSD could decline into 0.9800 before rebounding back towards 1.0600, while the NZDUSD could fall towards 0.8000 before a move back to recent highs near 0.8500.