Friday, November 20, 2009

Low Interest Rates: Steroids for the Stock Rally?

The "carry trade" that helps fuel this global rally is fed by super-low interest rates—and the cheap capital they create. Should investors worry?

Nov. 16 featured two events now familiar to traders: Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke
told financial markets to expect low interest rates "for an extended period." And once again the value of the U.S. dollar slipped vs. other major currencies. Both developments were welcomed by traders who are playing the dangerous but profitable "carry trade."

In the dollar carry trade, investors borrow money in U.S. dollars, taking advantage of very low short-term interest rates. Armed with cheap money, they buy up higher-yielding assets. Everything from Hong Kong real estate and commodities to foreign and even U.S. stocks can be driven higher by the carry trade.

Investment flows associated with it can also exacerbate the dollar's weakness. "This kind of carry trade generates remarkable pressure on the dollar," says Michele Gambera, chief economist at Ibbotson Associates, a subsidiary of Morningstar (MORN).

On Nov. 16, the U.S. dollar index—a measure of its strength against a basket of world currencies—lost 0.37% of its value, extending an eight-month slump. A euro is now worth almost $1.50, up sharply from $1.25 in March.

The weakening of the dollar may be good news for U.S. exporters, but it alarms the country's foreign trading partners. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner heard concerns about the dollar's strength from Asian finance ministers at last week's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. The dollar is also certain to be on President Barack Obama's agenda during his first visit to China this week.

asset bubbles are tough to call

The carry trade is hard to measure, with experts disagreeing about how much money flow is being driven by the strategy. New York University Professor Nouriel Roubini warned earlier this month that low rates are creating a "monster bubble," as cheap dollars push markets to unsustainable heights.

After examining data on trading and fund flows, UBS (UBS) economist Larry Hatheway has concluded that the carry trade is not a major factor. "Price gains largely reflect improved fundamentals, including signs of global economic recovery, the strength of emerging economies, and a recovery of earnings," he wrote on Nov. 12. But Hatheway added: "Identifying—in real time—asset bubbles fueled by leverage is admittedly very difficult."

Other market observers see signs that the carry trade is a key driver of the market's daily movements. "There is a significant carry trade going on," says Marc Chandler, global head of currency strategy at Brown Brothers Harriman.

In some ways, the talk about the carry trade is a good sign for the world economy. The carry trade is a risky strategy and risk-taking is often seen as a "symptom of healthy capital markets," says Bill Larkin, fixed income manager at Cabot Money Management.

Low interest rates are supposed to trigger economic activity and investment. Judging by rising stock and commodity markets, the strategy might be working. "Cheap money is seeking its way into the stock market," says Peter Cardillo, chief market economist at Avalon Partners.

Carry trade can end with a big shock

The worry is that the current practice is not sustainable. "Carry trades always have to be unwound," Chandler warns. By borrowing at low rates and investing at higher rates, carry traders can keep making money only as long as trends stay the same. When interest rates rise or currencies adjust, "it can burn a lot of people," he says.

"The sudden end of the carry trade [can] be a big shock wave in the financial markets," Gambera says. "It is always potentially destabilizing," he adds.

The carry trade itself is a sign of instability. Eventually, "we need to undo those extremes and go to a normal policy," Larkin says. But if rates rise too quickly, the economy could slip back into recession.

Policymakers such as Bernanke face a tricky balancing act. He consistently says markets should expect "exceptionally low levels of the federal funds rate for an extended period," as he did on Nov. 16. But to avoid putting too much pressure on the dollar, Bernanke added, in the same speech, that the Fed "will help ensure that the dollar is strong and a source of global financial stability."

Administration officials must make similar dual pledges, with Obama and Geithner trying to stimulate the economy and ease financial turmoil while also pledging to bring down the government's large long-term budget deficit.

"We need a gradual shift and not a sudden one," Larkin says.

One risk: A dollar-pumping crisis

With Bernanke reiterating his support for low interest rates, the carry trade could remain profitable for some time. But there are two big risks for those pursuing the strategy.

The first is a major crisis or international emergency that could increase the dollar's value. A year ago, when Lehman Brothers collapsed, the value of the dollar spiked as investors sought refuge in the world's most liquid currency.

Some warn that the dollar could be losing that special status, but for now there are few alternatives. Despite blows to the dollar, "there is no question that the dollar is the safe haven," says Georgetown University Finance Professor Reena Aggarwal.

The second risk is that the U.S. economy could pull out of recession quickly, prompting Bernanke to revise his endorsement of low interest rates. Market participants are closely watching economic data for such signs.

Low interest rates in Japan fueled a carry trade that lasted for years—until the play abruptly ended in the financial crisis of late 2008.

No one knows for sure whether the dollar carry trade will last for months or years. Markets are notoriously unpredictable, particularly at times of economic change. Much depends on whether the rapid appreciation of stocks and other assets this year can be backed up by real economic fundamentals. If not, talk of yet another market bubble could be justified.

(from, November 20, 2009)

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