Betting on the Czech Koruna & the Mundell-Fleming Trilemma

Foreign exchange rates are notoriously difficult to predict over the short term, because there’s a great deal of volume traded across the world by many various players (governments, corporations, individuals, etc) for all sorts of reasons. However, they are easier to see over a longer term period as they are the reflection of the interactions of many entities and their actions across the world based on fundamentals.

currency

As mentioned by the ‘Currency Specialist’ in Steven Drobny’sInside the House of Money“:

“…foreign exchange is the tail of the distribution… Central banks control the price of money and drive everything with their central bank rate. They use monetary policy to get supply and demand moving in the economy by encouraging people to move out along the risk curve. The risk curve, in essence, is the credit curve… from there, you move out along the risk curve to government bonds, corporate bonds, and then equities. At the tail end, you have foreign exchange (FX) fanning out… Foreign exchange is like the fan at the end of the credit curve. It’s a function of how people are looking at those credits along the curve. For example, if the market decides that Brazil is a great credit, then other things being equal I’d expect the Brazilian real to rally because people have to go in and buy it if they want exposure to Brazil.

They are beta on interest rate and credit sentiment, or beta on beta. Foreign exchange is sentiment driven because it’s a relative price between two countries. It reflects the relative sentiment of investors, reality and the perception of a bunch of different factors between two economies.”

One great way to understand the fundamentals of the currency market is via Robert Mundell’s and J. Marcus Fleming’s work, known as the Mundell-Fleming Model. As written by Callum Henderson in his primer “Currency Strategy”:

“In an economy with high capital mobility, suppose that a central bank decides to loosen monetary policy by cutting interest rates. One must assume that it does this because of weak growth conditions and benign inflation. As we saw before when looking at money demand, lowering interest rates reduces the incentive to hold interest-bearing securities, thus on a relative basis increasing the incentive to hold money or cash. This increase in money demand can be put to work buying goods and should reflect a future rise in national income and growth. The standard monetary model thinks of this in terms of rising demand causing price increases, which in turn causes the exchange rate to depreciate via the concept of PPP. Looking at it another way, rising domestic demand will cause rising import demand, which should mean deterioration in the trade balance. This in turn should eventually lead to depreciation in the exchange rate to allow the trade balance to revert back towards an equilibrium level. Another way of expressing the same thing is that lower interest rates cause capital outflows, which in turn cause depreciation in the exchange rate. Conversely, the basic assumption is that tighter monetary policy through higher interest rates should lead either to weaker domestic demand and a positive swing in the trade balance, or capital inflows, both of which should cause exchange rate appreciation.

On the fiscal side, much depends on whether trade or capital flows dominate. On the one hand, looser fiscal policy, either through tax cuts or spending increases, should cause rising domestic demand, which in turn should cause deterioration in the trade balance. On the other hand, looser fiscal policy causes higher domestic interest rates, which in turn attract capital inflows. If trade flows dominate, then the exchange rate should depreciate. However, if capital flows dominate, then the exchange rate should appreciate.

Conversely, tighter fiscal policy should, according to Mundell–Fleming, lead to weaker domestic demand. On the trade flow side, this should result in reduced import demand, causing a positive swing in the trade balance. On the capital flow side, tighter fiscal policy should lead to lower interest rates, which in turn lead to capital outflows. Here, if trade flows dominate, the exchange rate should appreciate, whereas if capital flows dominate, the exchange rate should depreciate. In a world of perfect or at least high capital mobility, it is assumed that capital flows dominate over trade flows…”

To put it simply as described by The Economist a country must choose between free capital mobility, exchange-rate management and monetary autonomy. Only 2 of the 3 are possible. A country that wants to fix the value of its currency and have an interest-rate policy that is free from outside influence cannot allow capital to flow freely across its borders. If the exchange rate is fixed but the country is open to cross-border capital flows, it cannot have an independent monetary policy. And if a country chooses free capital mobility and wants monetary autonomy, it has to allow its currency to float. Where barriers to capital flow are undesirable or futile, the trilemma boils down to a choice: between a floating exchange rate and control of monetary policy; or a fixed exchange rate and monetary bondage.

This understanding above is illustrated by The Economist in the following diagram:

mundell-fleming-trilemna

The ‘policy trilemma’ or ‘Mundell-Fleming Trilemma’ is highly self-evident and based of a basic and logical economic understanding of how the world works.

Unfortunately, a small country somewhere at the heart of the European continent may actually be struggling with this situation as we speak. The Czech Republic, well-known for her beautiful scenery and Central-European architecture, is caught in the ugly horns of the policy trilemma.

Prague_CzechRepublic_Tablet_1920x960.jpg

Since November 2013, the Czech Republic’s central bank (CNB) has pegged the Czech Koruna (CZK) against the Euro to a rate of CZK 27/EUR. Czech policy-makers back then were worried about deflation concerns despite benchmark interest rates at an all-time low of 0.05% since a year earlier (November 2012). They maintain the cap by constantly intervening in the currency market and deliberately weakening the CZK (by selling CZK and buying foreign FX), holding off deflationary pressures as the currency’s strength is restrained.

However, inflationary pressures have returned as markets across the world come off the low-base effects of lower energy prices, and it has also happened in the Czech Republic (as shown below using its HICP & CPI data).

CPI.JPG

The Czech central bank has been busy purchasing foreign currency and selling Koruna into the market in order to maintain its current peg to the Euro…

CNB reserves.JPG

The Czech economy is also in not too bad a shape, with leading indicators like business and consumer sentiment in healthy territory. This also means that inflation is likely to continue rising alongside the business cycle and improving domestic momentum in the Eurozone barring exogenous shocks. Wage growth is one area to monitor for further clues of accelerating inflation.

consumer confidence.JPG

The Czech Republic has also seen a steady decrease in its budget deficit over the past 5 years. Should this trend continue, it typically adds upward pressure to the currency’s value.

budget-bal

If the Czechs want to stabilise inflation they would need to let the CZK appreciate, giving up control over the exchange rate that they have now and getting back to a floating rate regime as well as monetary policy independence to maintain an open capital system. The Czechs know this, and they have communicated 2 weeks ago that they are looking to end the cap to the Euro sometime in the second half of 2017:

“Inflation rose sharply at the close of 2016 and returned to the CNB’s 2% target. According to the forecast, inflation will increase further, reaching the upper half of the tolerance band around the target and returning to the target from above at the monetary policy horizon… According to the new forecast, the conditions for sustainable fulfilment of the 2% inflation target in the future, i.e. after the assumed return to the conventional monetary policy regime, will be met from mid-2017 onwards.”

cnb-forecast

In the FX market, the markets are pricing in a low probability that the CNB will make its move before the end of the second quarter of 2017. Spreads between forward and spot CZK rates have risen, but not in a way that reflects the possibility of a sudden strengthening of the CZK against the Euro. It is also the same in the options market when gauging implied volatility levels.

forward-vs-spot-forecast

The chart above shows the term structure of EURCZK forward market against the forecasted spot EURCZK rates.

We all know that currency pegs tend to be inherently unstable and unsustainable. The famous devaluation cases of the 1990s comes to mind, whereby they tend to break when forced by external circumstances that are beyond policy-makers’ control. For the Czech situation, it’s a upward revaluation case, hence it’s a different kind of problem to have. They could probably take their time to manage the situation. The billion dollar question is: when?

I suspect that when the Czech policy-makers finally change their stance, the Czech Koruna will surge faster against many currencies (particularly against the Euro / EURCZK will fall) than the markets expect and then reverse course as liquidity may decrease drastically. This may make monetising the bet against the CNB a tricky trade.

EURCZK.JPG

Based of the current fundamental situation as explained above, it seems highly likely that that day is coming soon…

*image credits to http://ii.mypivots.com/, https://cdn.currency-rates.com, The Economist & https://www.whitecase.com*


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