Have fortunes shifted in the “currency war”? Brazil, which introduced the phrase in September 2010, has long been on the losing side of this conflict. Last July its currency, the real, was worth three times its trade-weighted value of October 2002, inflicting damage on export competitiveness.
Brazil’s initial response was mild and defensive, with limited intervention by the central bank and some taxes on foreign portfolio investments. But this month it has gone on the offensive, stepping up transaction taxes for foreigners and accusing developed nations of using currency depreciation to engage in “the fiercest protectionism that exists” – even as the real has been depreciating.
The real is not the only emerging currency to switch direction. The Indian rupee, Turkish lira and Chilean peso have all depreciated this month after rising against the dollar in January and February. Even the Chinese renminbi, edging higher for two months, has been edging down again in March.
All of which has some analysts wondering if a more fundamental shift is taking place.
Dong Tao, regional economist for Asia ex-Japan at Credit Suisse, published a report this month declaring an end to China’s commodities “supercycle”, aligning himself with a growing band of analysts who expect China to experience a “hard” rather than a “soft” landing.
John-Paul Smith, equities strategist at Deutsche Bank, says: “We feel productivity in China is slowing quite markedly. If that’s true then the currency doesn’t have anything like the potential to appreciate that it might have had.”
A new negative outlook for commodity prices would explain the slide in the Brazilian real and in several other currencies among this month’s worst performers.
If so, it means that Brazil, whose president Dilma Rousseff has promised to do “the possible and the impossible” to defend Brazilian industry, has been engaging in the kind of aggressive depreciation it pointed to in the US and other countries.
Yet Brazil’s newly aggressive position may be hard to sustain for long. Tackling currency appreciation caused by portfolio inflows is one thing. It will be harder, and counterproductive, for Brazil to fend off the long-term foreign direct investment that makes up a big and growing share of capital flows. If it discourages this kind of investment, Brazil will damage its growth prospects.
“There’s an element of exhaustion to the extent of the EM [currency] rally this year,” says Daragh Maher, foreign exchange strategist at HSBC. “People were surprised at how rich some currencies were getting and are looking for a fundamental angle to justify a pullback.”
He believes it is too early to say whether this month’s adjustment signals lasting change or is a short-term correction. While HSBC expects a soft rather than a hard landing for China, the risk of the latter cannot be ruled out. “There has been no clear resolution of the China story and that’s a headwind we will have to face for some time. But when you have a consolidation, it might be a mistake to extrapolate that into a massive sea change that will continue for the rest of the year.”
Koon Chow, emerging markets currency strategist at Barclays Capital, is cautious about reading too much into this month’s currency corrections.
“Let’s remind ourselves. Interest rates in developed markets on aggregate are likely to remain low for a long time. If you and I are to have any chance of retiring, we will be forced to diversify into markets where the potential returns are higher.”
That does not mean it will not be harder this year to make a return on emerging market assets than it was before. The pull into emerging markets generated by high growth and currency appreciation and the push out of US assets generated by low growth there and a stagnant US dollar are weaker than they were. The long-term scenario of slower growth in the developed world and faster growth in emerging markets still seems intact.
There is another reason to question the idea that emerging market currencies are depreciating together. The currency war has never been a simple matter of emerging versus developed markets. When Brazil first raised its standard in the war, its biggest concern was with China. This month, Brazil rewrote the terms of a trade agreement with Mexico to defend its automotive industry.
In a world of slowing growth and uncertain outlooks, it looks like it is every currency for itself.
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