Why Buy Asian Currencies?

by: Mitul Kotecha

Given all the attention on Greece and European fiscal/debt woes over recent weeks it’s been easy to forget about the success story of Asian economies. Of course, there has been a lot of attention on China and the international pressure to revalue its currency. However, the stability and resilience of Asian economies has been impressive throughout the financial crisis and recent Greek saga, helping to boost the attraction of Asian currencies.

Asia has managed to avoid the fiscal/debt problems associated with many developed economies, due to much better fiscal management over recent years. There are a couple of exceptions however, including the Philippines and India, but the fiscal positions in these countries have seen an improvement and are unlikely to lead to anywhere near the same sort of problems associated with Greece and other European countries.

So far this year capital inflows into Asian equity markets have much been stronger than 2009, albeit after a rocky start to the year when flows dried up due to rising risk aversion. Since then inflows have resumed strongly. The comparison to 2008 is even more dramatic as much of Asia registered significant capital outflows that year. South Korea, India and Taiwan, respectively, have led the way in terms of inflows into equity markets in 2010, with inflows of $4.3 billion, $3.7 billion and $3.3 billion, respectively.

It is no coincidence that Asian currencies are most sensitive to the performance of Asian equity markets, with strong capital inflows and rising equities leading to stronger currency performance. Asia is set to continue to be a strong destination for equity flows over coming months, which given the high Asian equity correlation with local currencies, will lead to further appreciation in most Asian FX. A likely CNY revaluation in China will also help to fuel further Asian FX upside.

The strength of portfolio capital inflows into Asia reflects the outperformance of Asian economies relative to Western economies. Whilst the US, Europe, Japan and UK have struggled to recover from recession and are likely to register only sub-par recovery over the coming months, Asian economies led by China are recovering quickly and strongly. This pattern is set to continue, leading to a widening divergence between Asian and G7 economic growth.

As growth strengthens inflationary pressures are set to build up and Asian central banks will likely raise interest rates more quickly than their G7 counterparts. Already some central banks have moved in this direction, with India, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam having tightened policy. This will be followed by many other central banks in Asia over Q2 2010 including China. Even countries with close trade links to Asia, in particular Australia, will rate hikes further over coming months with Australian interest rates likely to rise to a peak of 5% by year-end.

Given the assumption that the US is unlikely to raise interest rates in 2010, higher interest rates across Asia will result in a widening in the interest rate differential with the US, leading to more upside potential for Asian currencies as their ‘carry’ attraction increases relative to the USD. The most sensitive Asian currencies to interest rate differentials at present are the Malaysian ringgit (MYR), Thai baht (THB) and Philippines peso (PHP) but I believe that as rates rise in Asia, the sensitivity will increase further for many more Asian currencies.

Most Asian currencies have registered positive performances versus the USD in 2010 led by the MYR and Indonesian rupiah (IDR) and closely followed by the Indian rupee (INR), THB and South Korean won (KRW). The notable exception is China which has been unyielding to pressure to allow the Chinese yuan (CNY) to strengthen. Even China is set to allow some FX appreciation although if the US labels China as a "currency manipulator" it could prove counterproductive and even result in a delay in CNY appreciation.

Looking ahead, the trend of strengthening Asian FX will continue, likely led by the likes of the KRW and INR but with the MYR, TWD and IDR not far behind. Stronger growth, higher interest rates, strengthening capital inflows and higher equity markets will contribute to appreciation in Asian currencies over the remainder of the year.

Disclosure: None