Posts Tagged ‘forex’

February 20th, 2011

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Savings (Working Group): There aren’t any.

I’ve finally finished wading through the paperweight (as is the norm) aka the Savings Working Group report. Having read the initial commentary, I wasn’t that excited about the prospect but often in these reports there are useful nuggets of information. The main noise is around saving more and adjusting savings incentives especially to promote Kiwisaver.

What is not clear though is to what extent we have an actual savings problem. Our gross saving is at the low end of the OECD with Portugal and Greece below us along with two nations that might surprise: The US and the UK (page 121). There is also difficulty in analysing the differences between household and business saving. NZ is a country of small businesses and often business and household financials are closely interlinked. There is no definite conclusion around this issue and the report asks for further research into this topic, especially around data collection.

The macro level is really where the problem can be seen. When looking at the growth in national wealth, it’s clear to see that housing revaluations are the key driver (page 127) of growth since 1999. In fact “property revaluations explain nearly all changes in household net worth since 2001 (page 130). This is another way of demonstrating that we haven’t actually created any productive wealth: we’ve simply revalued our housing base and used that to fund increased consumption. That consumption has been funded by debt and that is why we have a serious debt problem.

So can we save our way out of this problem? Looking at the data on household incomes one would have to say “no chance”. Market incomes have fallen (yes fallen) for the bottom half of the population between 1988 and 2007 (page 140). That is simply astounding. This at a time when house prices have risen 490%. This is the cause of the deepening inequality between the owners of property and the renters. Even with benefits added in income for the first four deciles has remained largely the same (page 141).

Poor choices? Or simply no income with which to save. I think we must face the fact that half of our population is existing on meagre income. They cannot save and are likely to be in debt simply by virtue of not having enough cash to afford purchases or expenses outside of the simple basics of living. Those who have managed to get on the property ladder have prospered primarily because their asset has risen substantially in value. That is where their  savings lie. It should be noted though that, for many, this increased wealth is purely on paper.

At this point it might be worth looking across to data from Australia (page 128. Aussies actually have more of their wealth in residential property than Kiwis do (50% vs 46%). Investment in shares in much the same (8% vs 9%). The big difference is in long term assets. Aussies have 19% in Pensions and Superannuation whereas Kiwis have 2%. To balance that out Kiwis have 22% in business and farm assets against Aussies holding just 9%. So for Kiwis businesses and farms are their pensions. This is not an exact comparison but it’s clear that there is not much to separate the two countries other than Aussies invest in public companies and Kiwis keep it private. It also shows that Australia may have the same debt problem we do though they have benefitted more from the commodities bubble than NZ.

The oft quoted statement (from Ministers, the RB and other officials) that Kiwis should save more is somewhat optimistic. Save more from what exactly?

So what can we do? Well we can look at the other side of the savings coin and that is our expenditure. As a country we have essentially borrowed our GDP for the last 20 years. This is reflected in our current account position which has left us with a Net Foreign Liability (NFL) of 85% of GDP. Poor investment and low labour productivity (not sure where the NZBR gets its numbers from) has left is with nearly 40 years of negative current account balances (pages 20-24). The simple explanation is that we have consumed more than we have sold (plus all that accumulated and compounding interest). This consistent deficit should have seen NZ with a consistently weak currency (to allow the balance of payments to correct) but this has not been the case. NZ’s high real interest rates have been attracting overseas investment looking for a high yielding home (page 26). NZ is seen as a safe place to invest and, in an era of low global rates, has seen major inward flows which have not just funded the current account deficit but also the major revaluation in house prices.

The accumulated current account deficit has pushed interest rates thus forcing up the currency . This in turn has made imports even cheaper fueling the spending boom and embedding the circularity of higher prices in the economy (page 39). The bottom line here is that our currency is too high. This has been noted for some time but successive governments have chosen to ignore the problem, hoping that regular comments will help keep a lid on its appreciation. A 2010 IMF study estimated “that stabilising NFL would require the real effective exchange rate to depreciate by 20%”….that’s to just keep NFl where it is now. To reduce “NFL to 75% of GDP over 15 years would require the real effective exchange rate to depreciate by 25%” (page 36).

That would put the NZ$ at between $0.55-0.60. Ouch!

That is the real story to come out of this report. To summarise:

- We don’t save much because half the population has had no increase in income for 20 years.

- The other half have increased wealth due to large revaluations in house prices.

- The top 2 deciles have seen increases in wages and this is where most of the real saving is coming from (if any).

- Debt funded consumption has seen interest rates rise thereby sucking in more investment flows and boosting the currency.

- We have borrowed to live and really have no spare cash to save.

- The best form of saving is paying down debt, both private and public.

- The only way to improve our position is to export more and import less.

- The primary way to export more and import less is to engineer a significant and lasting depreciation in the currency.

- The second option is to develop and invest further in export based industries.

Adjusting tax incentives and boosting Kiwisaver are not going to help us out of this malaise. Only strong and decisive action can help us from here. So what would I recommend? That’s too much for this post but at a high level some of the following (most of which I have written about previously).

- Lower the exchange rate by direct intervention.

- Cut interest rates as well as bringing down the cost of mortgages which are still very high.

- Restrict bank credit by raising asset requirements.

- Build a self-sustaining energy sector.

- Introduce a basic income to replace welfare and superannuation.

- Liquidate the overseas portion of the Cullen Fund (now whilst markets are at 30 month highs).

- Invest more in the productive export sector.

- Oh and let’s have a land tax whilst we’re at it (this was ruled out by the government in the terms of reference!).

Next week: The Welfare Working Group reports…..can’t wait!

February 16th, 2011

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ANZAC$: Back on the Parade Ground

Yesterday Julia Gillard became the first foreign leader to give a speech in Parliament. It was full of mateship and the usual joshing that is a theme for Australian-New Zealand relations. Beneath the jovial tone lay the theme of integration. This has been around for a long time, probably since the CER was first implemented back in 1983. It’s been somewhat on the backburner over the last 12 months as Australia has gone through a political shift but now the same theme is back on the table.

Is complete economic union likely? I addressed this back in September 2009 when it was last on the table. What has changed since then?

There has been a major shift in global political alignments. As the shift of economic power has moved from West to East, so has the political spotlight. Back in 2008 I noted cross border acquisitions from the East and that these signaled a major shift to a post-imperial world. That shift has continued apace with China rising to the fore, now the second largest economy in the world. For the ANZAC brothers that has major implications.

Being connected to the ASEAN has helped both Australia and New Zealand define its geo-political position in a post-Empire world, specifically post European Community integration. Asia is quite clearly the major focus in terms of trade and this has seen some interesting reaction from the old allies. This year we had a visit from William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary, along with his Defence colleague, Liam Fox. It was the first visit in almost 20 years and indicated that the UK was taking this shift East a little bit more seriously. Suddenly old friends were very much worth getting to know again. Previous to this we had a semi-royal visit from Hilary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, down under to sign the Wellington Declaration which put NZ back in the very, very good friends corner. And today we see the Treasury heads of the UK and Australia in town to meet with their NZ counterpart. This is of note as it is the first time they have met together.

So what does this all mean? Simply it’s a jostling for position and a reaffirming of old ties in  a very new world. This puts Australia and New Zealand in a very strong strategic position. We are friends of the old and the new world. We are well located geographically…out of the way but close enough. For the ANZAC buddies that poses some interesting questions. Stronger together, weaker alone or carry on as is?

We can see that the CER is being re-negotiated to allow of higher levels of non-reviewed investment which could mean a lift for corporate activity as well as a loss of company control. And this is really the crux of the matter. Do we want to control our own destiny? Lessons from Europe are all too stark in this regard. Sinking economies have no room to lower their currencies and so swing in the wind, completely reliant on bailouts.

Ultimately the people will decide on this, though its clear that further integration around common borders, regulations and practices is likely to continue. At what point does having separate currencies become a pain? Well ask anyone trying to transfer money between the two countries. You would imagine you could shift cash at minor spreads but actually you pay through the nose. Travelex is one the worst players in this market. Even market spreads are quite wide. So there is definitely a cost to doing business which might add up to 1-2% of overall activity.

A nation’s currency is ultimately a reflection of its sovereignty. The ability to issue your own coin is one the the most recognised symbols of nationhood and has often been as an economic weapon in the colonisation process. If you lose that ability then you lose control. It’s as simple as that. The way to overcome that is to just recognise that you are part of something bigger (in this case Australasia) and take the good with the bad. Personally I think it’s a tough decision to make. History tells me that having control over your own affairs is a good thing. But perhaps the mateship bond will swing views the other way. Perhaps it’s already happened. I’ll leave the final word to Peter Costello, the former Australian Treasurer, at the second Australia New Zealand Leadership Forum in April 2005 (“Crisis”, Bollard, 2010, 26):

“You guys in New Zealand have to get real. If you want to be part of a single economic market with us you can forget having your own banking system. Remember, you sold your banks to us: you don’t own your financial system any more. Leave the regulation to us”.

Strewth!!

October 6th, 2010

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The Art of Currency War

It’s been 3 years since the G7 made a serious call for the Yuan to appreciate. But not much has happened since then (apart from a complete meltdown in the global financial system) except for the global trade imbalances to worsen. We are now faced with the distinct possibility of more currency mayhem as markets reach another tipping point.

We are starting to hear more overt language from both officials and the general media about the potential for currency way, namely competitive devaluations, capital controls and other measures to shift currencies to where they should be or where officials would like them to be. Sovereign states have always messed with their currencies whether to screw their own people or other nations. It’s always about self-interest. But at some point the beggar they neighbour approach fails and we race to the bottom. There is no doubt that China is the key here but it’s played a very smart hand and has the US over a barrel. The geo-political arm wrestle is at full bore here and we don’t get to see much of it in the news. At some point though the surplus nations must adjust their currencies to bring the trading world back into equilibrium otherwise the whole system will fall apart. Keynes predicted this would happen and its been a 70 year work in progress. Kondratiev would be impressed.

The question is why hasn’t that happened already. You would imagine that a country with a trade deficit and an ongoing current account deficit (swollen by interest on borrowings to cover the trade deficit) would see its currency weaken and surplus countries would see the opposite. THis change in currency rates would, other things being equal, reverse the flow of trade and all would be rebalanced. On paper maybe but in the real “free market” that doesn’t happen. Why? Because deficit countries tend to have higher interest rates (in order to attract the capital it needs to pay off its debts) and those higher yields attract more and more capital looking for a home. So we have the ludicrous situation of one country lending another country the money to buy its goods…….that is not a recipe for long term success….unless you happen to be running a criminal organisation where your goal is to get your clients hooked on the product…..

It’s also known as debt slavery. And it must stop.

So does this mean we are headed for a new Plaza/Louvre Accord? I think that will be very difficult to achieve at the moment. It’s unlikely the Chinese would accept a single focus on the Yuan. It would almost be better to completely realign the whole global currency system where all surplus/deficit currency rates were realigned to new levels. The obvious problem (other than agreeing new rates) is that there would be nothing to stop markets moving rates right back. This suggests capital controls may come into play (Brazil is already trying something here with its bond market) perhaps in the manner of Malaysia.

More over steps such as currency intervention can be a problem unless the stars are aligned in your favour. Trying to weaken a surplus currency is next to impossible as the SNB found to their chagrin when buying huge amounts of Eur/Chf at a time when the market was actually desperate for Chf. The Japanese are repeating the same mistake as the Swiss by intervening, cutting rates, increasing liquidity and generally flapping about in the Yen. At this point in time they have made no progress at all. Why? Because the market wants to own surplus currencies and not the $. At some point $/Yen will collapse which will suit the US though probably not the Japanese.

For deficit countries with an appreciating and overvalued currency like New Zealand there may be better opportunities for influence. More on that net time.

For now though begun the currency wars have.

April 18th, 2008

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P2P Currency Exchange?

The P2P phenomenon which started with online communities and has now spread to lending money, couch surfing and music swapping has another possible application: currency exchange.

The reason I mention this is because of the highway robbery some currency exchange outlets are carrying out. To give you an example:

Last week I took a trip to Sydney. I bought some A$ at Christchurch airport through the BNZ. Their rates are always very good usually a spread of around 2-2.5%. Now that’s still pretty big but remember these rates are change maybe once a day max and the markets can be moving as much as that. I bought some US$ at 0.7929 knowing the market was actually trading at 0.7945 so i was getting an almost at market rate.

But when I arrived in Sydney I checked out the rates available at Travelex. These guys are offering outrageous prices (unfortunately they are at Auckland airport also).

Their spreads on A$ to NZ$, US$ and GBP were 20%, 15.6% and 22.4%.

Who are these guys kidding. In market vernacular I could drive a bus through that spread (more like a fleet of them).

So what to do? Well we have P2P lending now established in many commonwealth countries. So how about extending that to provide a currency service within the new distributed network.

It’s food for thought.

April 12th, 2008

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G7 calls for major review of global financial system

The G7 communique from the current meeting makes for interesting reading. Their focus has been wide ranging and, for a change, not just on currencies though the headline statement does make a clear reference to recent moves.

What I took note of was their concerns around bank capital. This is really where the crunch point is located. They call for the Basel Committee to review liquidity risk management guidelines and a quick disclosure of write downs ands revaluations (or in reality devaluations).

The accounting for off balance sheet items was also raised, particularly the valuation of assets in a time of financial stress. That should cause palpitations amongst traders of credit default swaps. Quite frankly some of this stuff can only be valued when its traded. The idea that there is some kind of two way market is really a myth. That in itself should make regulators, as well as bank shareholders, sit up and think about some of the toxic trades sitting around on the books.

They also call for a speedy implementation of Basel II. I think they should tear up Basel II and move straight onto Basel III but more on that another time.

They realise the game is up and the time has come for a thorough overhaul of the system itself. It will be interesting to see how this plays out as more and more unwinding takes place. As far as currencies go, China was gently reminded to hurry up and revalue the Yuan and the market was reminded that G7 wasn’t happy about some of the moves we had in March.  Whether that helps the $ is anyone’s guess but they better have an intervention plan up their sleeves before the $ takes another big dump.

The markets had a nice rally but reality is never too far away in markets and the last couple of weeks may have just been a pause for thought.

March 18th, 2008

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Helicopter Ben readies for drastic action

After a chaotic few days the market has calmed as it awaits the next round of soothing medicine from the Fed. 100bps is expected now and anything less could see a major sell 0ff. So perhaps its time to recap on what’s happened:

- Global expansion of the money supply by the banking system abetted by loose regulation.

- Financial assets treated as investments.

- Trading on a leverage basis whether in the markets or in property.

- Reliance on capital gain to pay off debts.

- Creation of an asset bubble in property and stocks.

- New financial products promising spectacular gains.

A quick recap:

- Asset prices can go no higher as the mathematics of compound interest and cashflow catches up.

- The first domino falls as the sub-prime market starts to fall.

- Property finally turns and heads south in the US.

- Debts over run equity in houses.

- Spirals into derivative products causing a more widespread reaction.

- First reaction from Fed.

- Banks start to revalue (mark to market) loans.

- First run on a bank: Northern Rock fails.

- UK nationalises Northern Rock.

- General deleveraging starts as contagion spreads.

- Banks review lending and fringe financing companies fail.

- Rogue traders appear.

- Central banks provide copious amounts of liquidity.

- Fed cuts rates heavily and provides open lending to all.

- $ collapses and commodities explode as safe haven.

- Second run on an investment bank: Bear Stearns fails.

- Fed sort of nationalises Bear Stearns but gives it to JP Morgan under guarantee.

- Financial system on the verge of complete collapse.

So what now?

Well the Fed has studied the 1930s depression very carefully and realises that systemic bank failure is simply not an option. Yes shareholders will lose most of their money but that’s the risk with equity. The lines of credit and liquidity must be kept open and depositors must be kept afloat. If necessary banks in trouble will be taken over or have to merge.

It’s safe to say they will do whatever it takes, regardless of the cost. The clean up can come later but for now this is mainly about preserving confidence in the system.

How it pans out is impossible to predict but i wouldn’t want to own any banking stocks.

About

"I’m a Londoner who moved to Christchurch, New Zealand in 2002. After studying economics and finance at Manchester University and a couple of years of backpacking, I ended up working in the financial markets in London. I traded the global financial markets on behalf of investment banks for 11 years. Since moving to NZ, I have been an angel investor, budget advisor, director, trustee, mentor and business consultant. I'm currently a Councillor at Christchurch City Council and a Trustee of the Volunteer Army Foundation and the Christchurch Arts Festival Trust. I write about the intersection of economic, social and environmental issues."

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