Forex safe havens vs high betas

Currencies are affected by a huge range of factors individually, and the drivers of a currency can vary massively over time.

One thing that’s pretty constant, is the classification of currencies as high beta or low-beta.

Beta is a measure of a currency’s volatility in relation to the overall market:

For example, when the stock market as a whole is going up 8%, the beta of the stock market is 8%. Anything you achieve more then 8% is your personal alpha.

High beta currencies or other high beta assets are instruments that tend to yield a higher return than the overal market beta but when that market goes down, it often loses more as well. Higer risk – higer return right?

At the extremes that’s still true, but there’s a LOT of grey in the middle where interest rates are clustered together 👇 (More developed countries ussually have lower yield because there is less risk for investors).

Let’s get a handle on this by grouping and ranking the currencies:

As with any generalisation, you can definitely pick some holes in it (e.g. categorising the EU as low political risk is a bit dodgy even though there IS an assumption of stability/continuity nowadays).

Leaving the little nuances aside, let’s go through each group…

High Beta Currencies

Emerging economies where economic growth is typically fast and unequal, political risks, debt and volatility are high.

Interest rates are higher in these economies because investors demand a higher risk premium to compensate for the uncertainty (of defaults, instability, regime change etc.)


Cyclical / Activity Currencies

Developed economies where economic growth is steady, political systems are stable, and capital markets are well-developed.

Interest rates are lower than emerging economies. Investors demand a lower risk premium because of this relative stability.

Cyclical currencies are highly sensitive to the global economic cycle, and tend to rise in value as global economic activity rises.


King USD: The Global Reserve Currency

Mixed Beta: The dollar needs a category of its own (and it can ‘float’ between cyclical and safe haven)

As the largest global economy, if the US does well, the rest of the world does too.

When the US economy is roaring and leading the pack, the dollar typically strengthens.

When the rest of the world is catching up and/or growing at a faster rate, the dollar typically falls in value.

When global growth slows, the dollar acts as a safe haven and typically strengthens.

The Dollar Smile 👇  

Because the dollar is the global reserve currency, US interest rates have implications for the entire world.

As a rule of thumb, US rates represent the risk-free rate.

The Risk Premium is essentially the amount of extra insurance an investor will demand to put their money into riskier investments rather than parking it in ‘risk-free’ assets (such as US treasury bonds).

Safe Havens & Funding Currencies (Low Beta)

e.g. CHF, JPY, EUR

Arguably, USD is the one true safe-haven: the largest economy, bond market, and military superpower.

The Swiss Franc also benefits from safe-haven status, due to its exceptionally stable government and financial systems, tax-haven status and geopolitical neutrality.

Then there’s the Japanese Yen, which is more of a funding currency than a safe haven.

Investors tend to use JPY for carry trades. Essentially, they borrow Yen to fund the purchase of higher yielding foreign assets.  

In times of economic stress, those trades are reversed (carry trade unwind) so Yen demand increases and the Yen strengthens.

The Yen is also considered as a safe-haven so there’s a self-reinforcing belief too.

The Euro is increasingly used as a funding currency due to low/negative interest rates so the same is true. The fragmented political situation means it is unlikely to ever become a safe-haven.

Key takeaway: 

Currencies can be grouped. Generally, what’s good for one within the group will be good for the others…

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