Risk On/Off?

Before I left for my summer break in Greece I asked, among other things, whether Hungary was trying to escape original sin or more specifically (and implicitly) whether Hungary is using the current relatively favorable market environment to claw back control over monetary policy. Recent comments from central bank Deputy Governor Ferenc Karvalits suggest that this may very well be the case (quote below from Bloomberg);

Investors see Hungary becoming “significantly” less risky, allowing for further reductions in interest rates, central bank Deputy Governor Ferenc Karvalits said. “Over the past few months, international risk appetite has improved significantly, the risk assessment of the region and Hungary has stabilized, and this allows for further easing of monetary conditions,” Karvalits said in an interview on Kossuth Radio today.

The Magyar Nemzeti Bank lowered its benchmark interest rate by half a percentage point to 8 percent on Aug. 24 as it works to jolt the economy out of its worst recession in 18 years. The bank has shaved 1.5 points off the key rate since July as confidence rises in the first European Union nation to get a bailout. Hungary received 20 billion euros ($28.5 billion) in an emergency loan from the International Monetary Fund, the EU and the World Bank.

The country has a “good chance” to finance its budget deficit from the market and may not need the next installment of the IMF loan, Karvalits said. The forint weakened 0.3 percent against the euro and was trading at 268.82 at 7:48 a.m. in Budapest.

You see, one of the principal reason why Hungary is in such a mess is that as inflation shot up in the months leading up to the crisis Hungary chose to loosen its peg against the Euro. At the time, the rationale seemed wise albeit very bold. In an environment where investors were willing to take risk (i.e. hunting for yield) their objectives could be aligned with that of public authorities in the sense that the former got their yield whereas the latter got the nominal appreciation needed to keep inflation in check.

It did not work quite like that.

As the crisis hastened its grip on global markets and as its locus steadily moved to Eastern Europe the Hungarian Forint plummeted and lay bare the country's vulnerabilities in the context of balance sheet (on the liability) side denominated in Swiss Francs. The result was that Hungary crashed into a recession unable to tweak monetary policy downwards because of a fear that this would scythe the Forint and thus essentially bankrupt scores of households and companies. On the other, the government also had (and has) difficulties raising funds on international capital markets.

Now however things appear to have changed at least for a moment and Hungary's central seem poised to take advantage of the relatively benign market conditions to lower interest rates to support its ailing economy. The underlying idea is simple. If you believe that risk aversion is to stay low, the Forint should not be sensitive towards the lowering of nominal interest rates since after all the carry remains plentiful. In this way, my view is that Hungary's central bank is trying to claw back the control over monetary policy by locking in a lower interest rate for the Forint. The key question which we should be asking ourselves however is of course whether Hungary could actually be forced to raise rates further down the road to defend the Forint. Clearly, bets are being made inside Hungary at the moment that this is not the case.

This is very interesting in a practical as well as a theoretical sense as I have discussed for example in this post about carry trade and global monetary policy. More recently, Edward Hugh mused on the same topic (more or less) invoking the idea of the (eternal) triangle of monetary policy in an open economy context.

In the case of the Central Europe "four", Poland and the Czech Republic opted for maintaining their grip on monetary policy, thus accepting the need for their currency to "freefloat" and move according to the ebbs and flows of market sentiment. As it turns out this decision has served them remarkably well, since the real appreciation in their currencies which accompanied the good times helped take some of the sting out of inflation, while their ability to rapidly reduce interest rates into the downturn has lead to currency depreciation, helping to sustain exports and avoid deflation related issues.

The other two countries (Hungary and Romania), to a greater or lesser degree prioritised currency stability, and as a result had to sacrifice a lot of control over monetary policy, in the process exposing themselves to the risk of much more violent swings in market sentiment when it comes to capital flows. Having been pushed by the logic of their currency decision towards tolerating higher inflation, they have seen the competitiveness of their home industries gradually undermined, and as a consequence found themselves pushed into large current account deficits for just as long the market was prepared to support them, and into sharp domestic contractions once they were no longer disposed so to do.

Edward's account here is important since it alerts us to the fact that it was only at the very end that e.g. Hungary opted for float because it was believed that it would make the inflation problem go away. At that point however, the structural imbalances and essentially damage were already embedded in the system of course. Nevertheless, it is unequivocally the fact that Hungary, at the moment, is attempting to benefit from the relative benign market conditions which means that risk aversion remains relatively subdued.


Elsewhere in Market Land ...

If our little trip to Hungary suggests that risk is on, if only a little bit and potentially in the case of Hungary news elsewhere suggest that the waters are more choppy. Of course, none of this is earth shattering by any means of the word, but since much, if not everything, seems to be revolving around China at the moment it seems worthwhile to dwell at recent news on how China are expected to "tweak" its hitherto lax lending policies to skim the worst of the mounting bubble (quote below from Bloomberg).

China’s banking regulators are “tweaking” lending policies to remove “froth” from the system while growth remains the top priority for policymakers, according to Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc. The goal is to manage risk exposure among banks and asset quality by checking lending from going into A-shares traded on the mainland and properties, Wendy Liu, Hong Kong-based head of China research at RBS ABN Amro, said in a report dated yesterday.


The banking regulator sent draft rule changes to banks on Aug. 19 that would require lenders to deduct all existing holdings of subordinated and hybrid debt sold by other lenders from supplementary capital, said the people, who have seen the document and declined to be named as the matter is private. This may cut lending by as much as 700 billion yuan ($102 billion), China International Capital Corp. said Aug. 24.

Of course, the main bias of the Chinese stimulus program and thus the authorities' objective remain one of promoting growth through the expansion of domestic investment and, one would assume, consumption. As RBS ABN Amro's Wendy Liu is quoted of saying; "policymakers have a far greater tolerance for asset-price appreciation over the medium term than before". That sounds about right to me even if I am no sage, at all, on China.

What is interesting in the case of the recent news from China was also the following piece by Bloomberg whose headline (Yen Strengthens as China Policy Concern Spurs Demand for Safety) makes a direct link between policies in China and risk sentiment in the market and thus also the movement of the Yen and the USD (remembering of course the narrative that repatriation of profits may ultimately be the main driver of the Yen at the moment).

The yen rose for a third day against the euro in the longest stretch of gains since July on concern Chinese production curbs would slow economic recovery, fanning demand for the relative safety of Japan’s currency. The currency gained versus major counterparts including the pound on speculation Japan’s exporters are repatriating earnings to take advantage of a new tax law. A government report today may show a faster contraction in the U.S. economy than previously estimated.

“We have talks from China cutting back expanding, trying to sort out the balance sheet and prevent too much reckless lending,” said Peter Frank, a London-based currency strategist at Societe Generale SA. “But domestic factors, like capital repatriation, are driving yen’s strength right now.”

Whether there is a history to be made here is debatable, but one thing is certain. China seems to have decidedly taken center stage in the global market discourse. Finally and essentially as a small footnote, yours truly took notice of the fact that despite the decidedly positive sentiment in the core of Europe at the moment on the back of the Q2 GDP print and upbeat confidence readings in Germany, aggregate retail sales continued their steady decline.

Whether all this signifies that risk is "on" or "off" I will allow the reader to decide for themselves. Personally, I am still bearish, but it is difficult to deny that the relative calm and positive environment that has prevailed since spring seems rather strong. I would expect sentiment to change once we return to "normal" in Q4 once the elections in Germany and Japan have been resolved and, more importantly, once OECD stimulus packages start to wane. Most importantly however, there is the situation in Southern and Eastern Europe still loom as the most likely harbringers of, if you will, black swans in which case risk almost surely would be off.