The Euro, Capital Flows and Speculative Trades

Quantitative Easing is generally seen as being negative for the currency in question, and the evidence would seem to support this, albeit not in all situations (sterling, for example). The ECB certainly believes that to be the case, the rationale being that lower bond yields in the EA will prompt investors to seek higher returns abroad, so resulting in portfolio outflows and hence selling of the single currency. The euro has certainly depreciated, both in broad trade weighted terms and against the other majors, and in May was 9.5% below its trade weighted value a year earlier, incorporating a 19% fall against the US dollar and a 12% decline against sterling.

Yet we also know that short-term currency moves can be strongly influenced by speculative positioning, with traders shorting a currency in the belief that QE should  be negative for its FX value, which then sets up something of a self-fulfilling prophecy for a time , as any initial weakness then prompts further selling given that momentum trading appears to be the predominant style at the moment. Data in the Commitment of Traders weekly report from the CFTC ( incorporating  FX futures ) provides a useful guide to speculative  positioning, and from that it is clear that the market started to build a very large short position in the euro/dollar last autumn and one which increased further  following the QE announcement in January.  The position peaked at a  record high in late March, at the equivalent of €28bn, and has unwound sharply since  to currently stand at €11bn, the lowest in almost a year. So the  initial fall in the euro and recent recovery would seem to owe something at least to speculative trades.  It is also worth noting that the unwind of the euro shorts coincided with a strong increase in short yen positions and a fall  in the yen against the US dollar.

What about more fundamental drivers of the euro, as captured in the Balance of Payments? The first point to note is that the EA runs a current account surplus, largely reflecting a positive merchandise trade balance, and one which is growing; the surplus rose to €212bn in 2014 and amounted to €245bn in the twelve months to April 2015, the latest data available. That surplus would therefore generally put upward pressure on the currency unless offset by capital outflows, which brings us back to the ECB’s hope that QE will stimulate such flows.

There has certainly been a significant change in terms of net  portfolio flows. with a net outflow of €160bn in the twelve months to April 2015, against a net inflow of €50bn in the year to April 2014. Moreover, outflows do indeed tend to be in terms of bond purchase, with  EA buying of foreign debt instruments  amounting to €119bn in the first four months of this year alone, which alongside some modest selling of other assets resulted in a rise in total portfolio outflows of €109bn.  Yet QE has also been associated with a significant rally in European stock markets, and  the same period has seen portfolio inflows of €76bn,  including €96bn in equities. So since the announcement of QE the outflow from debt investors has been offset to a fair degree by the inflow from equity investors albeit still leaving a net  portfolio outflow of  €33bn in the four months to end-April.

Direct investment flows also matter, however,  and here again the first four months of 2015 have seen strong inflows, amounting to €86bn, offsetting outflows of  €35bn to give a net inflow figure of  €51bn.  So net capital flows in total (portfolio plus direct) are small  to date  this year and actually a net positive (€19n) which added to a cumulative current account surplus of €69bn implies a inflow of €88bn. The errors and omissions on the BOP data can be very large and there are other financial flows associated with the banking sector but on the basis of the available figures  it is difficult to build a case that QE has led to the flows anticipated by the ECB or on a scale which might have led to a significant euro weakness. It is early days yet, of course, and higher US rates later in the year may trigger greater bond outflows, or indeed an outcome from the Greece negotiations which is seen as negative for the single currency.



QE in the Euro area

Mario Draghi made it clear at  his press conference in early April that the ECB had no qualms about using QE if additional unconventional monetary policies were deemed necessary. The Bank may have come late to the party and asset purchases are not a given but the message has been reiterated over the past few weeks and that possibilty has been instrumental in driving peripheral bond yields in the euro area to levels few expected to see in a short time frame. The ECB is also more openly concerned about the euro’s relative strength  and its implications for the economic outlook  and some see QE as a means to weaken the currency, although the recent performance of the euro implies that not many in the foreign exchange market believe that QE is imminent or that it is negative -indeed traders have opened up speculative long positions in the currency.

In fact the  evidence on QE  elsewhere indicates that it can work through different channels and that it  may not precipitate a currency depreciation. Quantifying the impact of asset purchases is difficult as one can never know how the economy would have performed in its absence and expectations  can also  play an important role  but there are various statistical and econometric methods available which can at least give some approximations. The most recent work on the topic was published in a discussion paper by the Bank of England (‘What are the macroeconomic effects of asset purchases’, Weale and Wieladek, April 2014) comparing the effects of QE on the US and UK economies. The paper finds that QE does indeed have a significant impact on real activity and inflation, with asset purchases equivalent to 1% of GDP having a much bigger impact on real GDP in the US (a rise of 0.38%) than in the UK (0.18%) although a similar impact on inflation ( 0.38% in the US versus 0.3%)

The study also found that QE impacted the respective economies through different channels. The US is far less dependent on bank credit than the UK and longer term interest rates on financial instruments are much more important. Consequently, QE’s impact on longer term bond yields appears to have been the decisive channel in the US. In contrast,  the main impact  in the UK was through shorter term rates, which were  expected to remain lower for longer, and  reduced market volatility. The FX impact also differed; sterling’s real exchange rate was not seen to be affected by QE whereas the dollar did depreciate according to the study.

What are the implications for QE in the euro area?. Well, we know that the market for private sector bonds in Europe is not large so any purchases  by the ECB would probably concentrate on longer term government bonds (hence the rally of late) , although, again, shorter term rates and bank lending probably have a much bigger impact on the euro economy. That suggests that the impact on GDP would be nearer to the UK than the US experience and that  €1000bn in QE (around 10% of euro GDP) would boost GDP by some 1.8%. Inflation in the euro area is much stickier than the US or UK so one doubts if the CPI would rise by the  3% or more indicated by the BoE study. Nor is it  a given that the exchange rate would depreciate-indeed, by lowering the risk premium on peripheral bonds  QE may  actually support the euro.

Of course the ECB may decide to do nothing for a while longer, particularly given the prospect of stronger growth in the euro area in the first quarter, and in a sense the mere  promise of QE may have already achieved at least some of its aims. An actual announcement may  therefore  risk disappointment and lead to some selling of bonds  ( ‘buy the rumour. sell the fact’) . So if the ECB does want a weaker euro, negative interest rates might well prove a better bet  than QE given the mixed results elsewhere.

The Future of the Euro

I was recently involved in a panel discussion on the euro at  the Cass Business school on March 3rd 2014, hosted by the London Irish Graduate Network. Tadhg Enright was in the chair and the other participants were  Graham Bishop and Martin Wolf from the FT.  Although there were no set speeches I took the opportunity to gather some thoughts on the euro, produced below.

The euro is now well into its second decade, having survived what appeared to be an existential crisis, and by most attributes of a sound currency can be viewed as a success. This is particularly true for the euro as a store of value; its internal purchasing power has been supported by stable and low inflation around 2% per annum and its external value has also been broadly maintained over time-the trade weighted exchange rate is currently about 5% above its level at birth according to BIS data. Yet few would argue that the original eleven members fulfilled the criteria normally required for an optimal currency area and the economic performance across those countries has hardly been uniform; Finland recorded a 20% rise in real GDP per head from 1999 to 2013 according to IMF data, followed by Germany (19%), Austria and Ireland (18%), in contrast to the zero growth experienced by Portugal over that period and the 3% fall seen in Italy. Of course we will never know how they would have performed absent the euro but it is clear that monetary policy at least has been far from optimal for individual countries- a simple Taylor rule, for example, would suggest that rates were far too low in Ireland in the first half of the noughties. Adjustments to imbalances are also clearly asymmetric, with the burden solely on debtor countries to shift resources to the external sector while creditor countries are not required to expand domestic demand to make that adjustment less painful. The notion of punishment for miscreants is a strong undercurrent in creditor country thinking and the penal rates on the original official loans from the Troika to those in bail outs were only abandoned as the threats to solvency became stark.

Differences in regional growth rates are not unusual of course and can persist for long periods. One can point to the fifty US States as an example, although a shared culture, language, legal and education system allows for mobility of labour and capital, which is not the case for the euro. The Federal budget in the US also acts as an automatic stabilizer, providing a partial cushion for weaker States in a way that is impossible in Europe given that the EU Budget is only around 1.5% of GDP.

Currency unions generally evolve from political initiatives rather than any compelling economic case and the euro clearly fits that model-remember all EU members are supposed to adopt the currency when meeting the entry requirements (although currently 2 have opt outs and a third, Sweden, an implicit opt out) which implies a membership of at least 25 over time, from the current 18. The flaws in the original construct have also been exposed: the monetary union created is part of an economic union but each country was left with fiscal sovereignty and control of its own banking system and, crucially, without a Lender of Last Resort such as the Fed or the BoE. Consequently the eruption of the global financial crisis from 2008 put huge stress on euro peripheral bond markets as, to some degree, those governments were borrowing in a ‘foreign’ currency, backed only by their ability to raise tax revenue in euros, as they had no mechanism to print euros to meet debt obligations. The ECB and the main government players also saw the explosion in fiscal deficits as the cause rather than a symptom of the crisis and confused investor concern about specific credit risks with an attack on the currency, pledging that ‘no euro bank will default’, so compounding the sovereign debt issue and the ‘doom loop’ between sovereigns and banks. That view had a particularly profound implication for Ireland, with the State injecting €64bn or some 40% of GDP into the banking system, with equity holders and sub-debt holders shouldering some of the bank losses. Ireland also had ‘first mover disadvantage’ as it is now proposed that senior debt holders can be ‘bailed in’, a policy then prohibited by the ECB.

The euro crisis precipitated a series of emergency, ad-hoc and sometimes contradictory policy responses  by the Eurogroup and the ECB, with the latter eventually promising to do ‘whatever it takes ‘ to save the currency, including  a conditional pledge to buy secondary market sovereign debt in unlimited amounts, in contrast to the misconceived and half-hearted Securities Market Programme. The commitment has never been tested but the market response indicates that investors probably perceive that the euro now has a Lender of Last Resort, at least of a sort, and is comforted by that fact, shrugging off doubts about its legality and degree of support within the Governing Council, although that sanguine view may change as events unfold. The fall in peripheral bond yields  may also be driven by investors giving some probability to  QE eventually emerging from the ECB.

The conventional view among commentators is that the euro project has now to evolve into a banking union and ultimately a full fiscal union. Steps have been taken in terms of the former, albeit hesitant ones, with the burden of bank resolution still State dependent for up to a decade. The tide of public opinion in Europe also appears to have shifted away from Federalism and so the concept of debt mutualisation is a long way from realization. Moreover, new euro fiscal rules will further limit discretionary budgetary policy within member states, so leaving governments and hence electorates with no macro tools to affect aggregate demand; domestic policy levers can now solely impact the supply side of the economy given the loss of sovereignty over fiscal, monetary and FX policies.

The conventional wisdom on banking and fiscal union requires political agreement on the way forward and it is by no means certain that electorates will support these moves. Indeed, the risk remains that debt fatigue or creditor fatigue will eventually result in the election of governments willing to risk leaving the single currency even though the costs of exit are seen as high and the outcome uncertain. What would Ireland do, for example, on a break up- a floating punt is unlikely so would it anchor again with sterling or adopt some range against the DM, as in the ERM? That uncertainty and perceived costs of exit may well continue to trump discontent within most or all the debtor members of the euro and the stagnation evident in the French economy may help precipitate a more expansionary monetary and fiscal mix in Europe – the respective performances of the US and UK economies relative to the euro area since the Great Recession surely cannot be put down to supply side responses alone.  One can never say that the fear of euro exit will always be the case, however, and that the single currency will inevitably survive in its present form.  Yet it is foolish, as some have done, to predict the date and time of exits as it will be political events that will determine the euro’s fate, which is appropriate for what is, after all, a political construct.