Shaping a portfolio for 2015 (iii): currency movements

When economies are deviate from the path that government policy would like them to follow, two basic options are available to get them back on track:

–internal adjustment, meaning the government alters tax/spending/interest rate policy to speed up/slow down the pace of growth; or

–external adjustment, meaning it changes policy with the aim of strengthening/weakening the currency.

In almost all cases, raising interest rates or raising taxes creates economic hardship and makes voters angry.  In bad times politicians have an overwhelming preference for external adjustment through currency movements, because the pain can’t be traced back to a given legislator’s votes.

rising/falling currency

A rise in a country’s currency acts like an increase in interest rates.  It slows down economic activity.  A decline in the currency does the opposite.

Either move has the secondary effect of shifting the composition of growth, as well.  A strong currency increases national wealth; it favors importers and hurts exporters and import-competing industries.  A weak currency does the opposite.

Right now, the EU and Japan are both following weak currency strategies aimed at simulating growth by devaluing their currencies.  In contrast, the US is about to begin the process of raising interest rates to wean its economy away from the emergency monetary stimulus it began in 2009.  The withdrawal of extra money will result in higher interest rates.  These differing policies are already having an effect on relative currency values, and therefore on publicly traded securities.

stocks in a weak currency country

The weak currency tends to stimulate overall economic activity.  Therefore, surprises in domestic earnings growth will tend to be positive–and good for stock prices.  Investors will also seek to benefit from foreign currency strength (i.e., the US$) by rotating their portfolios toward strong currency earners.  These will either be multinationals with significant operations/assets in the strong currency country or exporters.  They will also tend to shun importers, whose offerings will be more expensive and therefore less attractive.

stocks in a strong currency country

Holders of strong currency assets get more bang for their buck in buying weak currency goods and services (like vacations).  They are better off simply from the fact of local currency appreciation.  But for the local stock market, the currency appreciation isn’t an adulterated plus.  Quite the opposite.

The appreciation slows down domestic economic activity, making negative earnings surprises a greater possibility.  In addition, the strong currency value of a firm’s foreign (weak currency) earnings and assets is diminished.   Both will mean that year-on-year earnings comparisons in foreign operations will be unfavorable.  Neither is easy to predict, so the possibility of earnings disappointment will increase.

Therefore, holding stocks in a strong currency country isn’t always just a walk in the park.

Stock market participants typically deal with this issue by rotating their holdings toward importers and purely domestic firms.

other investor influences

carry trade

Weak currency fixed income investors may shift their holdings toward strong currency sovereign bonds.  We’re seeing this already being done this year by EU portfolio managers, who are buying Treasury bonds in large amounts.  To them buying Treasures seems like shooting fish in a barrel.  They get an immediate yield pickup plus a potential currency gain.

EU alternative investors can amplify their returns by shorting their own sovereign bonds and using the funds to buy Treasuries.  That’s the carry trade.

Although the Fed controls the overnight-money Fed Funds rate, foreign portfolio investors may well keep long-term US interest rates lower than they would be if domestic investors were the only market participants.

foreign investment

Foreigners may judge that the currency gain they achieve by buying US stocks will more than offset possible stock price softness due to slower earnings growth. There’s no general rule I know of to decide whether this is a good move or not.  In the 1980s, the return on Mexican stocks was fabulous, even though the peso lost virtually all its value during the decade.  Japanese stocks were also super in the same time frame, even though the currency was very strong.

for 2015

My experience is that traders in the currency markets are way ahead of me in evaluating where currencies should be.  I think I’m better off concentrating on general trends–orienting my active stock holdings in the US toward strong currency beneficiaries and my foreign positions toward weak currency beneficiaries.

One other tactic is to try to find companies that are growing fast enough that currency won’t matter much  (see my post on Pandora).

One final note:  the 1997 Asian economic crisis was triggered by dollar strength.  Many regional firms had borrowed extremely heavily in dollars because interest rates on local debt were much higher.  Balance sheets were destroyed when the dollar appreciated.  If there’s similar trouble in 2015 look for it in South American and Africa, not Asia.




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