27 October 2008

Currency crisis is gathering storm

In the last few weeks, the currency market is where the action has been. We have witnessed massive moves in every major currency and in some not so major ones. To my mind, all of this is a prelude to some sort of currency crisis.

This crisis has been sneaking up on us as most of us have been transfixed by the US subprime crisis and the subsequent credit crisis. For some currencies, it has been a sickening ride. The US Dollar plunged to 1.60 to the Euro only to snap back viciously down to 1.25. The US Dollar plummeted to below 2.10 to the British Pound but is now above 1.60. All of this in the space of a few months.

But, it is in commodity and emerging market currencies where the trouble is brewing. First, we saw a nightmarish plunge of the Australian and Kiwi Dollar as commodities plummeted. This all out assault on commodity and emerging market currencies then widened to include the Icelandic Krona, the South African Rand, the Polish Zloty, the South Korean Won, the Hungarian Forint, and the Mexican Peso amongst others.

This speaks to hot money fleeing emerging markets wholesale as the carry trade started to unwind. And I have slowly started a drumbeat of concern regarding these events. However, today, I caught two interesting perspectives on this debacle that made me blanch. One was the cover story in the Economist.

A few months ago, many emerging economies hoped they could take mass casual leave from the credit crisis. Their banks operated far from where the blood was being shed. The economic slowdown evident in America and Europe was regrettable, but central bankers in many emerging economies, such as India and Brazil, were busy engineering slowdowns of their own to reverse high inflation. They were more interested in the price of oil than the price of interbank borrowing.

This detachment has proved illusory. The nonchalance of the RBI’s staff, for example, is not shared by the central bank’s top brass, who, a day before the strike, cut the bank’s key interest rate from 9% to 8%, having already slashed reserve requirements earlier this month. Their staff’s complaint about pensions looked quaint on the day that Argentina’s government said it would nationalise the country’s private-pension accounts in what looked to some like a raid to help it meet upcoming debt payments. The IMF, which has shed staff this year because of the lack of custom, is now working overtime (see article). The governments of South Korea and Russia have shored up their banking systems. Their foreign-exchange reserves, $240 billion and $542 billion respectively, no longer look excessive. Even China’s economy is slowing more sharply than expected, growing by 9% in the year to the third quarter, its slowest rate in five years.

The emerging markets, which as the table shows enter the crisis from very different positions, are vulnerable to the financial crisis in at least three ways. Their exports of goods and services will suffer as the world economy slows. Their net imports of capital will also falter, forcing countries that live beyond their means to cut spending. And even some countries that live roughly within their means have gross liabilities to the rest of the world that are difficult to roll over. In this third group, the banks are short of dollars even if the country as a whole is not.

-A taxonomy of trouble, Economist

This article makes a compelling argument for expecting emerging markets to be the next leg down in this metastasizing credit crisis. And the Economist devotes much more space to this emerging problem (pun intended).

But, the analysis penned by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard is what really caught my eye. He makes the case for us to worry about a full-scale currency crisis worse than the 1931 currency crisis of the Great Depression. The link: Bank credit. You can think of Sweden in the Baltics, Austria in Central Europe, Spain in Latin America -- and you begin to picture the interconnectedness that will imperil Europe's banking system much more than either Japan's or America's.

The financial crisis spreading like wildfire across the former Soviet bloc threatens to set off a second and more dangerous banking crisis in Western Europe, tipping the whole Continent into a fully-fledged economic slump.

Currency pegs are being tested to destruction on the fringes of Europe’s monetary union in a traumatic upheaval that recalls the collapse of the Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992.

“This is the biggest currency crisis the world has ever seen,” said Neil Mellor, a strategist at Bank of New York Mellon.

Experts fear the mayhem may soon trigger a chain reaction within the eurozone itself. The risk is a surge in capital flight from Austria – the country, as it happens, that set off the global banking collapse of May 1931 when Credit-Anstalt went down – and from a string of Club Med countries that rely on foreign funding to cover huge current account deficits.

The latest data from the Bank for International Settlements shows that Western European banks hold almost all the exposure to the emerging market bubble, now busting with spectacular effect.

They account for three-quarters of the total $4.7 trillion £2.96 trillion) in cross-border bank loans to Eastern Europe, Latin America and emerging Asia extended during the global credit boom – a sum that vastly exceeds the scale of both the US sub-prime and Alt-A debacles.

Europe has already had its first foretaste of what this may mean. Iceland’s demise has left them nursing likely losses of $74bn (£47bn). The Germans have lost $22bn.

Stephen Jen, currency chief at Morgan Stanley, says the emerging market crash is a vastly underestimated risk. It threatens to become “the second epicentre of the global financial crisis”, this time unfolding in Europe rather than America.

Austria’s bank exposure to emerging markets is equal to 85pc of GDP – with a heavy concentration in Hungary, Ukraine, and Serbia – all now queuing up (with Belarus) for rescue packages from the International Monetary Fund.

Exposure is 50pc of GDP for Switzerland, 25pc for Sweden, 24pc for the UK, and 23pc for Spain. The US figure is just 4pc. America is the staid old lady in this drama.

Amazingly, Spanish banks alone have lent $316bn to Latin America, almost twice the lending by all US banks combined ($172bn) to what was once the US backyard. Hence the growing doubts about the health of Spain’s financial system – already under stress from its own property crash – as Argentina spirals towards another default, and Brazil’s currency, bonds and stocks all go into freefall.

Broadly speaking, the US and Japan sat out the emerging market credit boom. The lending spree has been a European play – often using dollar balance sheets, adding another ugly twist as global “deleveraging” causes the dollar to rocket. Nowhere has this been more extreme than in the ex-Soviet bloc.

The region has borrowed $1.6 trillion in dollars, euros, and Swiss francs. A few dare-devil homeowners in Hungary and Latvia took out mortgages in Japanese yen. They have just suffered a 40pc rise in their debt since July. Nobody warned them what happens when the Japanese carry trade goes into brutal reverse, as it does when the cycle turns.

-Europe on the brink of currency crisis meltdown - Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, Telegraph

When the markets open on Monday, I expect the crisis in Emerging markets to take top priority. Iceland was the first victim of this crisis. The dreadful events there should be a warning to policy makers to address this now or else we could see some awful writedowns at European institutions in the very near future -- not to mention the potential economic destruction this turmoil could cause.

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