Category: exchange rate risk

When Chasing Interest, Don’t Forget Currency Risk

For many years, interest rates have been extremely low in the UK and most other developed countries. If you are living abroad and your new country’s interest rates are much higher than back home, it is natural to think about ways to capitalise on the difference. The right strategy can significantly enhance your returns, but at the same time there are risks which many expats underestimate or completely ignore.
Do You Want to Earn 0.35% or 14.35%?
At present, central bank rates are at 0.5% in the UK and the US, 0.05% in the Eurozone, and negative in several other developed countries including Switzerland, Sweden and Japan. You can get a cheap mortgage, but you also earn close to nothing on your savings. At the same time, the rates are 6% in South Africa, 7.5% in Turkey, 11% in Russia and 14.25% in Brazil, just to name a few.
Why save at 1% or less in a British bank when you can earn multiples of that just by keeping the funds in a different currency? It makes complete sense, particularly when you are living there and big part of your expenses are denominated in that currency anyway.
Interest Rate Differences and Exchange Rate Changes
You have heard it before: There is no free lunch in the markets. To earn considerable returns, you must take considerable risks. In this case, the risk is that the currency you hold will depreciate and the resulting losses will wipe out or exceed any interest gains. This risk is very real. It happens all the time.
Even with the pound’s current weakness, in the last three years the South African rand has lost 38% against the pound, the Turkish lira has lost 34%, the Russian rouble 56% and the Brazilian real 46%. In spite of their high interest rates, you would have lost money on all of them.
According to an economic theory (named uncovered interest rate parity), when there is a difference in interest rates between two currencies, it is expected (other things being equal, which they never are) that the high interest currency will depreciate against the low interest currency, so the total return will be the same on both. For example, if interest rates are at 0.5% in the UK and 14.25% in Brazil, it is reasonable to expect that the BRL will lose approximately 13.75% against the pound in the next 12 months.
Theory and Reality
In reality, other factors come into play. Sometimes the high interest currency does not depreciate that much and you indeed make money holding it. However, other times it loses much more than “expected”, as seen on the examples above.
The risk of disproportionate adverse moves in emerging currencies is particularly high at times of global liquidity shortage and increased risk aversion, such as in the 2008 financial crisis or the 1997 Asian currency crisis, which spilled over and contributed to subsequent problems in Russia, Brazil and Argentina. The problem with these events is that you never see them coming until it’s too late. Furthermore, even an otherwise stable country’s currency can often be affected only due to market sentiment and its emerging status.
What It Means for Your Finances
The above does not mean you should always keep all your savings in GBP or other major currencies. It means that whenever the currency structure of your income, expenses, assets and liabilities is in mismatch, you are exposed to currency risk. For instance, if you are living in Brazil and saving in BRL, but planning to eventually return to the UK or retire elsewhere, you are to a large extent betting your future on the BRL exchange rate.
Make sure you know what you would do in an adverse scenario, such as a currency crisis, however unlikely that might seem at the moment. Keep at least a portion of your savings in a strong and stable currency, even when the returns don’t look that attractive. It is widely known that rich families in places like China or Russia prefer to keep big parts of their wealth in developed countries, giving up the higher returns they would earn at home. They do it for a reason and that reason is safety and stability.
You can allocate some funds to high-yield currencies and riskier investments, but with the core of your assets, like the pension pot, it should be defence first. Don’t bet your future lifestyle.