Institutional investors, banks, and hedge funds traditionally dominated the currency markets. With the advent of ETFs, individual investors now have the ability to gain exposure to this large and tremendously important asset class.
There’s widely differing opinions about whether currency ETFs are appropriate for retail investors. Some argue that currencies offer diversification and the potential to profit from long-term moves which often occur in the currency market. Others argue that it’s an area where retail investors in all likelihood will lose to more sophisticated professional investors who have access to better information and execution capabilities.
Single currency ETFs are available for all major currencies, including: Australia (FXA), Brazil (BZF), Great Britain (FXB, GBB), Canada (FXC), China (CNY, CYB), the Euro (FXE, ERO, EU), India (INR, ICN), Japan (FXY, JYN), Mexico (FXM), South Africa (SZR), Sweden (FXS), Switzerland (FXF), and the United States (UUP).
In addition, leveraged ETFs which provide double exposure are available on an increasing number of major currencies, including the Euro (URR, ULE), the U.S. dollar (UDN), and the Japanese yen (YCL).
Inverse currency ETFs, which allow you to profit when a currency falls, are available on the Euro (DRR, EUO) and the Japanese yen (YCS).
Multi-currency ETFs are designed to provide exposure to regions or types of countries, and include emerging markets (CEW, JEM) and Asia (AYT).
What Moves Currencies
A variety of factors impact the value of currencies, including:
- The direction of interest rates
- Economic crises
- Global summits that lead to changes in international economic co-ordination
- Central bank intervention
- Strikes, riots, and political instability
- Wars and terrorism
- Natural disasters
- Government policies impacting the economy and international capital flows
By far the single biggest factor driving currency rates is the direction of interest rates. All else being equal, capital seeks the highest return, and global money tends to migrate to currencies where interest rates are rising and away from currencies where interest rates are falling. In late 2009, for example, Australia surprised the financial markets by raising interest rates at a time when most other countries were lowering rates. The move resulted in sharp spike in value in the Australian dollar, providing a big profit opportunity for nimble traders.
But other factors can override interest rate differentials and investors would be wise to monitor a broad range of economic and political factors before committing to a currency position. Central bank intervention in the currency market – particularly if it is coordinated among different nations – can sometimes lead to a reversal of trend. More commonly, economic reports often spark a short-term reaction in the markets and, at critical moments, may lead to a protracted move. Finally, any sign of political instability such as riots, strikes, or civil unrest usually is negative for a currency.
In most cases, major currency trends occur when a variety of factors coalesce for a period of time, giving impetus to one currency over other currencies. A good example is the appreciation of the Canadian dollar in 2009. Canadian banks were impacted less by the 2008-2009 financial crises than European and U.S. banks; the Canadian economy was stronger than most other countries; and Canada was running a trade surplus. All of that added up to a big move into the Canadian dollar.
While any number of strategies can be employed in the currency markets, the most popular are as follows:
In this strategy investors attempt to identify a strongly moving currency and, essentially, hop on for the ride. The challenge is to determine whether strong initial move is likely to continue or reverse. Some investors assess whether underlying fundamentals support the move while others may try to measure the strength of the move through technical analysis.
In this strategy, investors seek to identify a currency which is undervalued based on either fundamental factors and/or technical factors. For example, investor may believe that a currency which has been weak for some time is likely to reverse course because of change in the country’s economic direction or policies. Similarly, an investor may decide based on technical analysis that the currency has been oversold and even a small increase in demand will likely lead to a reversal in direction.
Currency Carry Trade ETFs
The currency carry trade is very popular with professional investors. The basic premise is that large interest rate differentials create ideal conditions for a long-term trend favoring the higher yielding currency over the lower yielding currencies. The classic carry trade is to borrow money in a lower interest rate currency and use the borrowed funds to purchase a higher yielding currency.
With ETFs, you could replicate a carry trade through buying the higher yielding currency and buying an inverse of the lower yielding currency. However, a simpler way to execute this strategy is to purchase specialized ETFs that execute carry trades as the core of their strategy.
To the degree that international monetary policies diverge, where some nations focus on combating inflation while others concentrate on stimulating growth, there will continue to be opportunities for currency carry trades.
The Role of Currencies in Your Portfolio
Currency and commodity trading or speculating has a poor public image and conjures up images of investors losing all or most of their capital through ill-advised, highly leveraged trades that they perhaps did not understand and were talked into by unscrupulous market operators. At the same time, it should be noted that a strong case can be made that devoting a portion of your portfolio to currency and commodity assets adds diversification and improves long-term returns. And ETFs are the safest vehicle to accomplish that purpose.
An authoritative academic study issued in 1983 by Harvard professor John Lintner concluded that currencies and commodities reduce overall portfolio risk because they tend to be uncorrelated with stocks and bonds. Linder showed that allocating up to 14% of a portfolio to currencies and commodities reduces overall portfolio volatility.
As with any investment, investors should study the market closely, formulate a strategy, and develop a defined exist and entry before committing capital to any currency ETF.