The subject of safe havens is something that comes to mind as one considers the situation concerning North Korea. An unhinged leader combined with nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missile technology does not make for a stable mix and of course there is Kim Jong-Un to consider as well. Mind you Twitter took the news of a possible Korean H-Bomb very calmly yesterday as it was soon replaced in the headlines by Wayne Rooney’s difficulties and today events are led by a headline which could refer to North Korea but fortunately McStrike is in fact the first strike at MacDonald’s in the UK.
So let us consider an environment where risk is higher and maybe a lot higher. This poses an early issue as my time in derivative and particularly options markets taught me that we as humans are very bad at quantifying things to which we give a low probability. We are even worse when it is something we do not want to happen. Establishments magnify this issue as I recall the excellent work of the Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman on the NASA Challenger space shuttle disaster. He was part of the enquiry and was officially told that the odds were millions to one whereas when he interviewed individual engineers they told him that individual parts had a one in five hundred chance of failure. It turned out that the disaster was not a surprise as the surprise was that it had not happened before.
What does risk-off do now?
The Japanese Yen
Each time the rhetoric or a North Korean missile rises the Japanese Yen follows it. This felt especially odd when one of the missiles overflew Japan and tripped civil defence alarms as well as no doubt having the self-defence force scrambling. Also the rally to 109.60 this morning against the US Dollar will have steam coming out of the ears of the Bank of Japan on two counts. Firstly because a lower value for the Yen is part of Abenomics and secondly it will send equity markets lower ( 190 points on the Nikkei 225 index).Still the Bank of Japan will be able to occupy itself by buying yet more equities.
If we look deeper into Yen strength in risky times I note this from the IMF in November 2013.
since the mid-1990s, there have been 12 episodes where the yen has appreciated in nominal effective terms by 6 percent or more within one quarter and these coincided often with events outside Japan
Why might this be?
Safe haven currencies tend to have low interest rates, a strong net foreign asset position, and deep and liquid financial markets. Japan meets all these criteria
The first point if we modify low to lower to bring it up to date gives us food for thought on what determines interest-rates. We are usually told domestic considerations but there is a correlation between strong trade positions and negative interest-rates for example. As to the foreign asset position then unlike its public-sector which has lots of debt Japan is in fact the largest creditor. From Reuters.
Japan’s net external assets rose to their second-highest amount on record at the end of fiscal 2016, driven by rising mergers and acquisitions overseas by firms and portfolio investment, the Finance Ministry said Friday.
The net value of assets held by the government, businesses and individuals stood at ¥349 trillion ($3.12 trillion) — just behind 2014’s record ¥363 trillion. It meant Japan remained the biggest creditor nation for the 26th straight year, the ministry said.
There is a twist though as you might think the Yen rallies because of the money beginning to be brought home but in fact according to the IMF not so.
In contrast, we find evidence that changes in market participants’ risk perceptions trigger derivatives trading, which in turn lead to changes in the spot exchange rate without capital flows.
In essence it is expectations of a change rather than actual capital flows. I would imagine that the carry trade ( where foreign investors borrow in Yen) are a factor in this.
Many of the same factors are at play here which is why in the early days of this website I labelled the Yen and Swiss Franc as the “Currency Twins”. We can reel off negative interest-rates, trade, carry trade and so on including with a wry smile that official policy is in the opposite direction! There are two main differences the first is that there tend to be actual inflows into Swiss Francs. The second is the way that net private assets have been replaced by the Swiss National Bank. From a Working Paper from the Graduate Institute of Geneva
At the end of 2016, the Swiss net international investment position (NIIP, the value of foreign assets held by Swiss residents, net of liabilities of Swiss residents to foreign investors) reached 131 percent of GDP ……. The net international investment position of the private sector was thus close to balance in 2015, and only amounted to 24 percent of GDP at the end of 2016.
So we have seen something of a socialisation of Switzerland’s net investment position. Does that matter? I suspect so but markets seem less worried as the Swissy has rallied against the US Dollar by 0.75% to 0.9574 today.
It is hard not to raise a wry smile at the articles saying the Euro is no longer a safe haven currency as we note its rise today! Here is Kathy Lien of Nasdaq from last week with an explainer of sorts.
However the central bank’s positive economic outlook, their hawkish monetary policy bias
In future my financial lexicon for these times will have negative interest-rates and large QE as part of my “hawkish” definition. Anyway as we note that it is the countries with ongoing types of QE who are the new apparent safe havens we are left mulling the chicken and egg conundrum. Being a funding currency in the global carry trade is another consistent factor.
So far the era of the military dollar seems to have ended. Maybe it awaits a proper test as in an actual war but considering the stakes I would rather not find out.
So we see that a potential factor in being a safe haven currency is for official policy to be for the currency to fall? Not quite true for the Euro at least explicitly although of course it used to be expected ( outside the Ivory Towers who still do) that negative interest-rates and QE weaken a currency. A side effect of the official effort is clearly that the QE and supply of money aids and abets those who wish to borrow in that currency and at times like this even if they do not actually reverse course markets price in that they might. The currency then sings along to “Jump” by Van Halen. You can turn the volume up to 11 Spinal Tap style if actual carry trade reversals happen.
Also there is the issue of what is a safe haven? In terms of Japan it is clearly not literal as it is in the likely firing line. We see that front-running expected trends remains the main player here as opposed to clear logical thinking. Also we see that another safe haven only flickers a bit these days as bond markets rally a bit but nothing like they used to That is another function of the QE era as how much more could they rise? Also I note that equity markets do not seem to fall that much as the FTSE 100 is off 10 points as I type this.
So a safe haven may simply be front-running? If so it means we need to dive even deeper in future as does this below for Switzerland show strength or potential weakness?
Specifically, assets held by Swiss residents abroad represent 671 percent of GDP, while claims by foreign investors on Switzerland amount to 541 percent of GDP. With this leverage, a movement in asset prices and exchange rates that affects more assets than liabilities has a sizable impact on the NIIP.