From the look of just one chart, the one tracking the exchange rate of euro in U.S. dollars, it would seem like the demand for the European common currency is just about insatiable at the moment.
In a period of slightly more than two weeks, from Nov. 13, the euro has gone from trading around $1.27 to current peaks near $1.31, a tremendous rally in the world of foreign exchange. The move has helped boost prices of other euro-denominated securities, including Europe-listed stocks and bonds.
But looks, in finance as elsewhere, can be deceiving.
In spite of ballooning exchange rates, the fact is investors can’t get rid of their euros fast enough, as various rate indicators are demonstrating, and rather than a sell-off from dollars into euros, the world is experiencing something of a “dollar crunch” as European financiers are paying a steep price to trade their euros into greenbacks.
Perhaps the clearest exposition of that fact was made in a recent report by analysts at interdealer broker ICAP, which calculated the implied interest rate for borrowing euros for a three-month period using borrowed dollars as collateral. ICAP’s calculations note the implied rate would be negative, meaning lenders would have to effectively pay borrowers to take euros off their hands.
That phenomenon had happened before, but now it was becoming the status quo.
“Even the periods of extreme financial market risk aversion associated with sharply negative euro-dollar basis rate have driven euro basis lending rates below zero for only short periods,” ICAP’s Chris Clark wrote in the report, according to the Financial Times. “However, the current low interest rate environment means that rates on the euro side of a 3 month basis swap have now moved decisively into negative territory, for the first time ever.”
Even more drastically, during the same time the spot euro-to-dollar trade price has been rallying, forward swap contracts that play off the difference on the current exchange rate and the expected exchange rate a month from now have been plummeting. Two-month and three-month swaps have not fallen as sharply, suggesting investors are only trying to get rid of their euros around the end of 2012, and will take them back in early 2013. That timing factor has led some to speculate the move is linked to uncertainty about the resolution of the fiscal cliff issue in the U.S.
But tellingly, it’s not just in the euro-dollar markets where action on short-term interest rates betrays the narrative of a soaring euro. In Switzerland, where the central bank has been artificially implementing a ceiling for the national currency -- by wholesale buying of euros -- so many Swiss francs have sloshed back into the system that giant Credit Suisse announced negative interest rates on its cash accounts Monday. Competitor UBS also announced it would “levy temporary fees, negative credit rates on Swiss franc deposits from other banks.” Because the unusual move comes as a result of a central bank trying to prop up the euro, it betrays the true force behind the unified currency’s recent rally.
It seemed no one had told that to global currency traders Tuesday. Late in the European session, the euro was trading for $1.3086, up 24 basis points from the prior day’s settlement in New York.