The currencies of places as diverse as Russia, Hong Kong and Kazakhstan
slid last week, an alarming sign to some investors who worry that the
geopolitical volatility affecting U.S. stocks is spreading to other markets.
Hong Kong’s dollar hit the lowest level allowed under a more than
three-decade-old U.S. dollar-peg agreement, forcing the de facto central bank
to step in to defend the currency and stabilize it. Russia’s ruble fell amid
increased U.S. sanctions against the country and concern about a U.S. strike on
Syria, a decline that also contributed to a fall in Kazakhstan’s tenge. Those
moves came alongside a relatively calm week elsewhere, in which the Dow Jones
Industrial Average rose nearly 2% and the U.S. dollar was little changed
against a basket of currencies.
Currency markets have been steady this year, and some worry that
investors aren’t prepared for major global shifts, including tightening
monetary policy in the world’s biggest economies, that could threaten a
yearslong emerging-markets rally.
This week, investors will also confront news that the U.S., U.K. and
France launched missile strikes on Syria in retaliation for a
suspected chemical-weapons attack. While officials indicated there aren’t
currently plans for more strikes, the attack is likely to add to tensions
between the U.S. and Russia—which supports the Syrian regime—and could inject
more volatility into emerging-market assets and prices for oil and other
commodities that many of those nations export.
When geopolitical uncertainty rises, foreign-exchange investors tend to
pull back on emerging-market currencies and flock to those considered safe,
such as the Japanese yen.
After a strong start to the year, emerging-market currencies have
slipped in recent weeks. After a strong start to the year, emerging-market
currencies have slipped in recent weeks.
Some investors and analysts worry that foreign exchange could become the
next arena in a burgeoning trade conflict between the U.S. and China. China’s
yuan has thus far been resilient to the trade spat, but analysts fear a further
ratcheting in tensions could drag down both the Chinese currency and a broad
range of other Asian currencies.
A JPMorgan Chase & Co. index that tracks expected volatility in
emerging-market currencies rose last week to its highest level since February’s
market rout. Another JPMorgan metric for major currencies—such as the dollar
and euro—continued to fall, suggesting that volatility remains confined to the
more sensitive currencies of developing and emerging-market nations.
Investors say one major threat to currency-market stability is the
growing trade skirmish between the U.S. and China. Although tensions have eased since earlier this month, when the world’s
two largest economies threatened to impose tariffs on billions of dollars of
each others’ goods, few expect the calm to last.
Some investors fear that China could retaliate against U.S.
protectionist policies by devaluing its currency, which has risen about 10%
against the dollar over the past year.
“If China were perceived to be signaling it wanted a weaker yuan…that’s
a pretty effective way of offsetting any trade gain the U.S. might try to
achieve through tariffs,” said Brad Setser, a senior fellow at the Council on
Currencies vulnerable to a yuan devaluation include the South Korean
won, Singapore dollar and Thai baht, as well as those of other export-dependent
Asian nations, analysts said.
Eswar Prasad, a professor in trade policy at Cornell University, said
any effort to devalue the yuan could quickly backfire on China. Its devaluation
of the yuan in 2015 sparked a global market selloff and set off a wave of
capital outflows that China spent around $1 trillion in reserves trying to
Devaluation “would be a tool that could actually hurt the Chinese a lot
more than it would hurt the U.S.,” said Mr. Prasad. “It would really set the
Chinese back in terms of what they’re trying to accomplish with
The rise in global policy and trade tensions has roiled other
emerging-market currencies. The Russian ruble tumbled 6.8% against the dollar
last week after the Trump administration announced new sanctions against
government officials and business magnates in Russia. Kazakhstan’s tenge
dropped 2.3% against the dollar, highlighting fears that the ruble’s decline
will upend trade between the neighboring countries.
Meanwhile, the Turkish lira fell 1.3% last week as the emerging-market
volatility sharpened investor concerns over the health of that nation’s
A measure of expected volatility in emerging market currencies has
risen.A measure of expected volatility in emerging market currencies has risen.
The declines mark a reversal from a months long rally that took emerging
currencies and stocks to multiyear highs, as investors brushed off
uncertainties surrounding global trade and politics to focus on strong economic
growth in those nations. An MSCI index of emerging-market currencies has gained
around 2% this year, while its benchmark emerging-market stock index has risen
1%. That compares with the S&P 500’s 0.7% decline and the Stoxx Europe’s
A jump in volatility could also pressure countries whose currencies
remain tied to the dollar, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Pegged currencies
are often allowed to trade only at a specific rate or within a tight band, and
volatility can make upholding those levels more difficult as other factors—such
as investor flows in and out of the country—buffet the currency.
Many developing nations linked their currencies to the dollar decades
ago in a bid to insulate their economies from volatility. But the dollar’s
surge from 2011 to 2016 and a multiyear commodity-price rout forced many
countries to cut those ties as they became too expensive to maintain.
In 2014, Russia’s central bank began taking steps to allow the ruble to
float freely as the country’s economy came under stress. Countries including
Nigeria, Egypt and Kazakhstan have abandoned or loosened their ties to the
“Pegs don’t fare very well in a market that’s volatile,” said Mark
McCormick, North American head of foreign exchange strategy at TD Securities.
As markets become less stable, “the pegs will be challenged,” he said.
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