The Great Carry Trade III: Nouriel Roubini Frets about US and a bit on Japan

When I used to frequent the Internet Chess Club they’d often use a message something like: “A hush descends as Grandmaster So-and-so enters the room.” Well, I feel the same reaction should greet Professor Nouriel Roubini’s entry into the discussion of the Great Carry Trade. It’s worth hanging on the Professor’s every word…

Roubini notes that:

“…while the US and global economy have begun a modest recovery, asset prices have gone through the roof since March in a major and synchronised rally. While asset prices were falling sharply in 2008, when the dollar was rallying, they have recovered sharply since March while the dollar is tanking. Risky asset prices have risen too much, too soon and too fast compared with macroeconomic fundamentals.

So what is behind this massive rally? Certainly it has been helped by a wave of liquidity from near-zero interest rates and quantitative easing. But a more important factor fuelling this asset bubble is the weakness of the US dollar, driven by the mother of all carry trades. The US dollar has become the major funding currency of carry trades…”

Roubini, characteristically, worries most about the unwinding of the dollar carry trade.

I don’t know, I think there is a wrinkle here, which is that the US dollar can’t actually depreciate, not fully, anyway, because of China’s dollar peg. Therefore it hasn’t got so far to snap back in a panic. Sure, there can be some unwinding if the market suddenly perceives emerging markets to have become overvalued, more risky or growth less certain. This damping of the dollar’s movement makes dollar-funded carry trades less risky than they would be otherwise. This is not good, because it will allow bubbles to inflate even more than would otherwise be the case.

Roubini writes as if carry trading investors are making a currency gain by borrowing dollars, over and above emerging currency and other market movements. That’s only true if your accounting currency is neither dollars, nor, say, sterling, which is hardly appreciating nor going to appreciate against the dollar (and also appears to meet the criteria for a carry-trade funding currency). In fact, it’s only really true if your investors want euros or possibly yen at the end of the day, though one wonders why they don’t just borrow in those currencies to reduce the risk, if they believe a flight to safety would favour the dollar.

Since the dollar’s decline is primarily taking place against the euro, it follows, incidentally, that as I argued last time, the next phase of the game will be characterised by a eurozone trade deficit as well as a US and (not that it’s very significant to the rest of the world) a UK one.

Martin Wolf worries – to a very deferential Tech Ticker audience – that eventual US rate rises will have a dramatic effect. Sure. But – since interest rates do most of their work in curbing inflation through their effect on the foreign exchange rate – that simply means they won’t have to rise very much, doesn’t it? Of course, this will help to fuel further borrowing in US…

It might be worth comparing the dollar carry trade to the yen carry trade. The crucial difference is that the yen carry trade was/is inherently risky, because the yen has, for decades, been undervalued, given Japan’s persistent trade surplus (increasing again in 2009).

But we are in a fairly unusual situation of a reserve currency doomed to eventual decline: we can borrow cheaply in dollars because of its reserve status, but, as its status as a reserve currency diminishes, it will be seen to be fundamentally overvalued because of its trade position and the vast overhang of dollars already in foreign hands. So borrowing in dollars is something of a one-way bet – you don’t have to worry that your fortune has the Ponzi quality of depending on everyone else continuing to want to borrow in dollars. The dollar isn’t going to snap back up – notwithstanding a temporary recovery during the next major crisis – because its value is already being held up by central banks wanting to buy them. Rather, the dollar’s value can be expected to decline over time as it is replaced (by a mix) as the world’s reserve currency. Compared to the yen carry trade the dollar carry trade is a bargain, risk-wise. No wonder emerging market equities are breaking records!

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard is always an entertaining read. He writes today that the next crisis could be a Japanese default. But Japan’s trade surplus must make this unlikely. All they’ve got to do is divert some of Japan’s private savings to the public purse. Maybe a little easier said than done, of course, but there’s still plenty of scope. Of course, if they let their national debt rise from 2 to say 3 times GDP, it could start to get tricky to service…

Meanwhile, Peter Tasker worries about an asset bubble bursting in China. This seems closer to the mark. He compares China to Japan and notes that:

“If China continues to follow the Japanese template, the end of the dollar peg will be the trigger event [for the “final manic stage” of the bubble], setting off a Godzilla-sized credit binge.”

There also seem to me to be similarities with the Great Crash of 1929. We are in a fairly unusual situation of a reserve currency doomed to eventual decline, but it is not a unique situation. Didn’t the UK coming off the gold standard in 1925 convince investors that the dollar was the place to be? Blaming Churchill (who took the decision) is wrong-headed. The problem was that the peg existed in the first place, not that we came off it. It might be hitting the ground that does the damage, but the problem is trying to float in the air in the first place.

It seems to me the sooner China appreciates its currency the less painful it will be for everyone. Especially as, the longer Chinese economic growth exceeds that elsewhere, the bigger the relative size of its economy and the greater the imbalance caused by the undervaluation of its currency against the dollar. As I said when I started trying to get my head round all this, currency pegs are a very bad idea indeed. You may be able to market the buck, but you can’t buck the market.