Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Top currency fund: It's time to buy the dollar

FX Concepts LLC, the hedge fund that bought the euro in June just as it began a 9.7 percent surge against the dollar, now says it's almost time to get out of the currency.

The firm, which manages $8 billion in assets, expects the euro's advance from a four-year low on June 7 to come undone by September, partly because European austerity programs will start to weigh on growth. Reports last week that showed Spanish consumer confidence falling to the lowest level this year and banks tightening credit standards in the region suggest the budget measures may already be undermining the recovery.

The same fiscal measures that helped restore confidence in the euro may soon weaken the region's economies and torpedo the rally. A July 30 survey of 21 money managers overseeing $1.29 trillion by Jersey City, New Jersey-based research firm Ried Thunberg ICAP Inc. found 75 percent don't expect Europe's common currency to strengthen over the next three months.

"Austerity is really bad for growth," said Jonathan Clark, vice chairman at New York-based FX Concepts, the world's biggest currency hedge fund. "In the U.S., austerity is mainly on the state level, but in Europe they are whole-hog into cutting spending to reduce deficits. Under a pessimistic scenario, the European currencies are in a lot of trouble."

Spending Cuts

Spain, Portugal, and Greece will reduce spending by an average 4.3 percent of gross domestic product from 2009 to 2011, said Gilles Moec, an economist in London at Deutsche Bank AG, Germany's largest lender. The euro area will expand 1.5 percent this year, less than a previous estimate of 2 percent, UBS AG, the biggest Swiss bank by assets, said in a July 16 report.

The cuts contrast with the U.S., where President Barack Obama signed into law a $34 billion extension of unemployment benefits last month. The Congressional Budget Office projects a record $1.47 trillion deficit this fiscal year ending Sept. 30, and $1.42 trillion in 2011.

While U.S. growth is slowing, it beats the European Union, where a 750 billion-euro ($981 billion) backstop for the region's most indebted nations stabilized the currency after it slid from $1.5144 on Nov. 25 to the June 7 low.

U.S. GDP grew at a 2.4 percent pace in the second quarter, compared with 3.7 percent in the prior period, the Commerce Department in Washington said July 30. Corporate spending on equipment and software jumped at a 22 percent annual rate, the biggest increase since 1997.

The median second-quarter estimate for the euro region is 1.30 percent, and 1.10 percent for the year, based on a survey of 20 economists by Bloomberg.

Budgetary 'Zeal'

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke said July 22 more fiscal stimulus is needed to support the U.S. recovery. European Central Bank President Jean-Claude Trichet is taking the opposite tack, writing in the Financial Times that industrial countries should begin addressing deficits now. The ECB meets Aug. 5, and will likely keep its key interest rate at 1 percent, according to all 51 economists surveyed by Bloomberg.

"We continue to question the sustainability of the euro's recent rebound given the zeal with which European officials have embraced fiscal consolidation," said Mansoor Mohi-uddin, global head of currency strategy in Singapore at UBS. The world's second-biggest currency trader, after Deutsche Bank, predicts the euro will end this year at $1.15. "We expect the euro to face renewed downward pressure."

Raising Estimates

The euro strengthened 1.1 percent to $1.3052 last week, capping the biggest monthly gain since May 2009. While it rallied against the greenback in the five trading days ended July 30, it was little changed based on Bloomberg Correlation- Weighted Currency Indexes, rising 0.1 percent. It gained 0.2 percent to $1.3080 today.

Rising confidence in Europe's economy and a slowdown in the U.S. helped quell speculation the 16-nation currency union would splinter. Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Wells Fargo & Co. and at least 12 other firms raised their estimates for the euro in June or July, Bloomberg data show. The 15 percent slide in the first half also proved a boon for German exports.

The number of unemployed Germans fell in July to the lowest level since November 2008, the Federal Labor Agency in Nuremberg said July 29. The same day, an index of executive and consumer confidence in the region compiled by the European Commission in Brussels rose to the highest level since March 2008 in July.

'Great Deal'

"Governments have done a great deal bringing stability back to the region, and that will manifest itself in a stronger euro in the longer term," said Fabrizio Fiorini, head of fixed income at Aletti Gestielle SGR SpA in Milan.

The bears say Germany will be unable to prop up the euro much longer as the Frankfurt-based ECB's quarterly Bank Lending Survey released July 28 showed banks tightening credit. Consumer confidence in Spain fell to minus 26 last month from minus 25 in June, while sentiment in Portugal and France matched their lows for the year, the commission said July 29.

The euro may reach $1.33 before falling along with stocks, according to Clark at FX Concepts. The median estimate of 39 strategists surveyed by Bloomberg is for it to weaken to $1.21 by year-end.

The euro "will correlate strongly with equities," Clark said. "We are expecting equities to turn around and go down into the second quarter of next year or longer."

The MSCI World Index advanced 8.9 percent since the euro rally began eight weeks ago.

Bond Signals

Record gains this year by longer-maturity German bonds show investors are concerned growth across Europe may wane. Securities due in 2020 and later returned 13.8 percent, the most since the euro's introduction in 1999 and compared with 13.1 percent for similar-dated Treasuries, indexes compiled by Bloomberg and the European Federation of Financial Analysts Societies show.

"There's still a lot of stress in the euro-zone economy," said Shahid Ikram, deputy chief investment officer at Aviva Investors. The market is "probably viewing the debt burden as being deflationary. Any reduction in debt is likely to impinge on the potential rate of growth," he said.

The fund management division of Britain's second-largest insurer, which oversees $403 billion in assets, is looking for opportunities to bet the euro will weaken against the dollar, Ikram said.

Currency Options

Demand for options granting investors the right to sell the euro versus those giving the right to buy suggests eight weeks of appreciation may peter out.

The euro's three-month option risk-reversal rate was minus 2.14 percent on July 26, approaching the most since June 29. When negative, the measure means demand for options giving the right to sell the currency is greater than demand for those that allow purchases. The rate was minus 1.71 percent today.

"The fiscal challenges facing the euro zone remain immense," said Shaun Osborne, chief currency strategist at TD Securities Inc. in Toronto and the most accurate foreign- exchange forecaster from the end of 2008 through the first half of this year based on data compiled by Bloomberg. Osborne forecasts the currency will depreciate to $1.08 by year-end.

"The euro needs to go lower to try and help some of the fiscal bite that is going to start to have an impact on some of the more peripheral economies," he said.

A weaker euro may help companies in the region as it boosts competitiveness and makes revenue earned overseas worth more when it's brought home. Eni SpA, Italy's largest oil and gas company, said July 28 second-quarter profit jumped 81 percent as crude prices climbed and the euro declined.

Gary Shilling, president of the economic research firm A. Gary Shilling & Co. in Springfield, New Jersey, has predicted the euro may drop to parity with the dollar since January. He was correct in all 13 of his investment guidelines for 2008.

"This has really just been a lull between storms in Europe," Shilling said. "We still have a situation where the likelihood of defaults and restructuring in Greece, and probably Portugal and Spain, are still very high. That doesn't mean they won't be bailed out, but the turmoil that is likely to result should drive the euro lower."

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