A new BIS paper has some very telling data points. First, they demonstrate the extent to which leveraged financial speculation drove foreign currency movements in the financial crisis (it’s quite reasonable to assume that this factor was at work in other asset class dislocations too). Second, it provides evidence that highly leveraged masters of the universe were back to their old tricks in fairly short order.
Let’s start with a quick primer on “carry trades.” A carry trade occurs when a financial market participant borrows in some currency with a low nominal interest rate (the “funding currency”) and invests the loan proceeds in some asset(s) (a “target asset”) that’s expected to appreciate at a rate that exceeds the interest rate due on the borrowed currency. The target asset can be a higher yielding currency, a credit instrument, equities or a stock market proxy, commodities or a commodity index proxy, and so on.
The Yen carry trade — borrowing low yielding Japanese Yen and using them to acquire riskier assets – has been increasingly employed by speculators since the 1990s, and appears to have played a key role in the speculative period of 2004-2008.
Speculators engaging in this activity are taking risks (sometimes massive risks) with (for the most part) Other People’s Money (OPM). When it works, they return the borrowed funding currency plus interest, and pocket the difference. When it goes terribly wrong, you wind down operations and hide from your creditors behind a corporate liability shield, forcing them to write down the value of their loans to you (their funding currency assets).
Nice work if you can get it, and amazingly, investment banks and their subsidiaries have been falling all over themselves to make these loans to privileged clients — including their own proprietary desks and funds — since the late 1990s (in competitive strategy, herd pursuit of bad ideas is usually a sign of an over crowded industry).
Better yet for the carry traders, increasingly lax financial regulation has allowed speculators to lever their carry up to levels not seen before in modern history, meaning they can borrow more money for a given level of collateral, and/or purchase more assets with a given amount of funding currency.
As some of those trades started to go bad in 2008, the result was a breathtakingly sharp and sudden reversal in the key funding currency, the Yen. This can be seen in the circled graph below, along with the following observations:
- The rate of appreciation in the Yen was far greater in 2008 than in the 1997 and 1998 global financial crises. The left most graph shows foreign exchange movements between the Yen and thirty three other currencies during the Asian crisis of 1997. Clearly, forex movements in that crisis were country specific.
- The middle graph shows currency movements against the Yen during the 1998 crisis associated with the Russian sovereign debt default. The appearance of a positive slope is apparent, implying that forex dislocations were due more to speculative behaviors including the rising use of leverage than to country-specific risks (for that we can probably thank the pioneering geniuses at LTCM and their investment bank benefactors).
- The third graph shows the appreciation of the Yen during the recent global financial crisis. The slope, which gives an idea of how sharply the Yen appreciated against those 33 other currencies, is breathtaking. The median interest rate on the target currencies (on the horizontal axis) also appears to have been roughly half of what it was in 1998.
Translating into English, this means that in 2008-09, the Yen appreciated even more sharply than it did in 1998, and against target assets that offered half the expected return of those in 1998. This calls to mind a question we raised recently, which is whether some powerful financial market participants are confusing ”efficient dislocation” with “market efficiency.” That would be understandable after all. History shows that the fatter the economic rents being justified, the more deluded the economic rationales tend to be.
In the BIS paper, the author also notes that carry trade activities are inherently pro-cyclical: borrowing activity tends to push down the market value of the funding currency, while investing activity tends to push up the market value of the target assets, and this will tend to invite increasing levels of speculation until something causes a breakdown.
Higher degrees of leverage make the pro-cyclicality and the eventual fallout that much worse. Unfortunately, while a great deal has been made of John Maynard Keynes’ alleged return in the past year, it appears that the brief 2008-09 resurgence of Hyman Minsky — who warned presciently of such dangers – has already been forgotten.
That “Minsky fade” appears to be supported by the bottom right graph (though admittedly, this case isn’t as strong as the leveraged carry trade evidence discussed above). The negative slope in that graph shows that less than a year later, the Yen depreciated markedly against many currencies, especially against higher yielding target currencies, which runs counter to the aftermath of 1997 and 1998.
The implication is that the Yen carry trade came back on line fairly quickly after financial markets regained their footing. Apparently financial cockroaches are, like their arachnid namesakes, largely immune to the effects of fallout. As described by the BIS author:
…with extreme risk aversion abating, carry trade activity – a relatively risky strategy – may have returned in the second half of 2009. Indeed, carry trades in a number of high-yielding currencies, especially those of commodity exporters, provided extraordinarily high ex post returns over this period. Moreover, near zero interest rates prevailed in many major currencies, increasing ex ante profitability not only for traditional funding currencies such as the yen. Carry-to-risk ratios support this conclusion…
A a critically important aspect of this issue is financial regulatory reform. Very little has been done from a regulatory standpoint to bring down the astronomical leverage that was available for carry trade speculation prior to 2008. Yesterday, Larry Summers gave an interview to CNBC in which he emphasized that the scope of the proposed “Volcker Rule” was limited to particular types of banks.
If true, over leveraged areas of global financial markets are likely to continue escaping prudent regulation, which means that the pronounced cycles of euphoria and distress in risky asset classes will continue. While those swings create opportunities for contrarian investors, the dynamic behind them is a zero-sum or even net-negative economic game. In the long run, it causes more economic harm than it’s worth.
And while interest rates have converged substantially since the 1990s, current spreads are likely to persist in the decade ahead for multiple reasons, not least being variation in demographic cycles, which will mean lower nominal rates in most developed countries, and higher rates in most emerging markets.
In other words, the roach bait isn’t going anywhere soon. That means that sound regulation absolutely must fill the void in order for the gains from financial market speculation to approach something resembling a social optimum.
UPDATE 3/2/2010 – AP report on further progress in Senate Finance on financial regulation