Thursday, July 23, 2015

Shorting AUD/USD: on FDI and Reflexive Potential

Summary Reasons for Shorting AUD/USD

  • Technical downtrend is intact
  • Demand of AUD will be weaker in the future due to lower FDI and portfolio flows. Trade balance is negative but that’s a less important factor in my mind.
  • Factors that make AUD’s “reflexive” – price movement here can be self-reinforcing, rather than self-correcting 
Shorting AUD/USD is a fairly popular trade. Here are what I gather as the most cited rationales for shorting AUD/USD. Australia's main exports are iron ore and coal but prices for which have fallen and will likely stay low due to weak demand from China. Trade balance will deteriorate. The Reserve Bank of Australia thinks further depreciation is necessary and will keep rates low or even cut rates to stimulate the economy.

I agree with that line of reasoning, but trade balance and lower interest rates are not the only reasons that AUD will continue to depreciate. Going forward, in my opinion, foreign direct investment and potential for “reflexivity” will be bigger drivers of AUD decline.

Importance of Foreign Direct Investment

In the chart below, I used balance of payments (BOP) from 2006 to 2014 as proxy for historical inflows and outflows. Australia has persistently ran trade deficits and even bigger primary income deficits. What propped up demand for AUD in the past few years were foreign direct investments (FDI) and sometimes portfolio flows.

Australia balance of payment - FDI is key

Note how trade balance is a relatively minor contributor versus other flows. Primary income is mostly stable while portfolio investment is fickle (and likely negative going forward). FDI though, has been consistently strong, but will likely deteriorate drastically going forward.

FDI is concentrated in the mining sector (~roughly 40% of foreign investment in Australia), and that is likely to drop off given prevailing weakness in commodity prices. Demand from China will stay weak given its continued shift away from an investment driven economy.

Reflexivity - Quick Background

But how much of that is already priced in? That’s always tough to know. A different question though, is will lower exchange rates hurt economic fundamentals and lead to even lower prices? i.e. is there a reflexive relationship here? I think so, but first a quick summary of George Soros’ reflexivity framework (as it relates to currencies) is as follows:  
  • Prices are driven by different factors of supply and demand. Some of these factors are self correcting, and some are self-reinforcing. 
  • Self-correcting means weaker prices -> improving demand vs supply -> stabilization in prices. 
  • Self-reinforcing means weaker prices -> deteriorating demand vs supply -> further weakening in prices. 
  • To see if a trend will continue, an analyst can break down price into different sources of supply/demand, and determine if self-reinforcing flows outweigh the self-correcting ones. 
In the context of foreign exchange:
  • Price = nominal exchange rates. Supply and demand are inflows and outflows in the balance of payments items. 
  • Trade balance is typically a self-correcting: lower nominal currency -> lower real currency -> better trade competitiveness and trade balance -> stabilization of currency 
  • Portfolio investments tend to be self -reinforcing: lower nominal currency -> expectation of even lower FX -> expected currency losses tend to outweigh interest rate differentials for bonds and detract from equities returns). 
  • FDI could be either self-correcting or self-reinforcing 


With that background, here’s why I think AUD/USD will be a reflexive situation that keeps driving downward.

1. The main self-correcting flow, trade balance, is a relatively minor factor here (as shown in the BOP chart above). Further, Australia’s trade balance will likely see less improvement from currency devaluation due to its unique situation. Lower prices of main exports (iron ore and coal) is not going to help much if the problem is structurally lower demand from your customer in the first place. Australia’s main competitor in iron ore is Brazil and that currency is even weaker. So Australia is not going to get much of a boost in trade balance from weaker AUD.

2. FDI is likely a self-reinforcing flow in this case – weaker AUD will lead to weaker FDI. Remember again, FDI for Australia is big in the mining sector. With commodities, prices are in USD but local production costs are in the local currencies. When Australia and Brazil’s currency weaken versus the USD, local costs are effectively lowered and that will pass through to lower commodity prices. Would you invest in a mining project when 1) commodity prices will likely stay low or get even worse, and 2) the sector already has excess capacity? I don’t think so.

3. Portfolio inflows are self-reinforcing. For Australia, portfolio flows are mostly debt securities as opposed to equity. 10 year government bonds for Australia yield ~2.85% versus ~2.25% in the United States. What little extra yield you get from investing in an Australian bond could easily be overwhelmed by movements in currencies, which is decidedly negative in this case.

My conclusion is that the downward move in AUD/USD will continue, because the self-reinforcing elements (FDI and portfolio outflows) outweighs the self-correcting mechanism of trade balance.

This may take a while to play out though, and you incur negative carry on the trade. So timing and technicals do matter. AUD/USD hovers around 0.74 at the time of this writing. I am short and have a stop loss around 0.77 and my eventual target is as low as 0.65. The risk is if Australia comes out with massive investment project (develop North Australia for example) and attracts money from abroad. But that is unlikely in the current government and in any case unlikely to offset weakness in mining projects.

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