ETF Trends
ETF Trends

A rising number of exchange traded fund (ETF) investors are looking toward currency ETFs as a way to diversify from the greenback, seek safe havens or implement other sophisticated currency strategies in their investment portfolio.

Before ETFs began covering the currency market, foreign currencies were limited to the foreign exchange market, or forex market. The forex market is the most liquid financial market, as it is backed by trillions of dollars in world currencies, continually exchanging hands across all time zones. Additionally, the effects of currency moves can often reverberate in other asset classes such as stocks. Foreign currencies are not actually bought or sold on a physical exchange. Instead, banks, corporations and individuals enter agreements on trades, with a majority of trades handled between banks.  [ETF Trends’ Guide to Currency ETFs.]

Forces Behind Currency Movements

Currency traders have to carefully monitor yields when trading in currencies. If a country’s benchmark bond yield decreases, the country’s domestic currency will most likely rise – currencies have a high inverse correlation to bond yields. Since the overall stock market and bond yields generally have a positive correlation, currency ETFs could act as a portfolio diversifier as a way to offset potential losses from drops in bond yields or broad equity markets.

In addition, a country that generates a significant proportion of GDP from raw materials or commodity exports will also see its currency’s strength oscillate, depending on commodity prices. For instance, the Australian dollar has a high correlation to base-metal prices due to the country’s large mining industry and its copious raw materials exports.

Currency ETF traders may also be interested in safe-haven currencies during troubled times. Political stability, low inflation and monetary and fiscal policies are all attributes that can make safe-haven currencies attractive. The U.S. dollar, European euro, Swiss franc, British pound sterling, Canadian dollar, Japanese yen and Australian dollar, have been categorized as safe-haven currencies. [Swiss Franc ETF Hits Fresh Peak on Debt Jitters.]

Recently, the euro lost some of its appeal as the financial problems of the Eurozone continue to hit the headlines, and the U.S. dollar has also come under fire as loose monetary and fiscal policies help extend the U.S. deficit; not to mention the debt ceiling debate. In contrast, fiscal and monetary prudence has helped countries like Switzerland and Japan maintain their strong currencies. [Dollar ETFs in Focus as U.S. Debt Talks Falter.]

Looking into Currency ETFs

ETFs offer the average retail investor a chance to gain exposure to foreign currencies. Prior to the launch of the first currency ETFs, the individual investor would have to gain access to this asset class through the forex market, and most individual investors do not have the resources or capital required to enter this market. Through ETFs, anyone may buy and sell currency holdings like stock shares. Potential currency investors now have a wide array of currency ETF or exchange-traded note (ETN) options available.

Currency ETFs provide non-U.S. dollar exposure and offer diversification and hedging through the use of another asset class, which may also allow an investor to reduce overall risk while maintaining a position to benefit from the potential upside.

Currency ETFs can try to reflect the performance of a single currency or a basket of currencies. Fund sponsors structure their currency products to try to mimic foreign currency movements by holding the targeted foreign currency or currency denominated short-term debt; however, it should be noted that fund structures vary between different fund providers and their management styles.

For example, Rydex’s CurrencyShares are grantor trusts that hold the actual currency. The interest earned is accrued on a daily basis and then reinvested monthly.

PowerShares currency ETFs hold futures contracts and are registered as open-ended ETFs. Potential gains on futures contracts are subject to the so-called 60/40 tax treatment, where 60% of gains are long-term and 40% are short-term.

WisdomTree’s currency income ETFs hold U.S. money market securities or a combination of money market instruments that try to provide exposure to non-U.S. money market securities or rates.

Market Vectors provides currency ETNs, which are senior, unsecured debt securities that offer exposure to exchange rates between the U.S. dollar and foreign currencies. [Distinguishing the Difference Between ETNs and ETFs.]

In addition, Market Vectors and ProShares include some leveraged-long and leveraged-short ETNs that provide enhanced currency exposure. The funds try to provide the double daily bullish/bearish performance of a specific currency.

Barclay’s iPath currency ETNs try to reflect the fluctuations in various currency pairs.

Capitalizing The Carry Trade Technique

Due to the high liquidity in the forex market and a widening disparity between country yields, the carry trade can be a possible strategy. Carry trades attempt to capitalize on the interest rate disparity between two countries and establish positions for potential appreciation in values.

Essentially, the carry trade involves taking on loans from low interest-rate bearing countries and putting that money into countries with high interest rates. As a result, the trader would take advantage of the interest rate spread between the two countries, and the carry trader may also benefit from potential capital appreciation between the two currencies. Currency investors have traditionally profited from the carry trade between the high interest found in the Australian dollar against the low-interest bearing Japanese yen.

However, a trader would take a hit if the exchange rate devalues by more than the average annual yield or if inflation were to suddenly skyrocket, which would eat away at the real value of the currency, and the risk of losses is increased if a currency trader uses leverage.

There are numerous ETFs and ETNs targeting currencies, allowing investors to have a range of choices when it comes to deciding how to use them in portfolios. When choosing currency ETFs, consider the differences between the funds, how they access currencies and their tax treatment. Keep in mind the macroeconomic market forces that sway the movements of economies and global currencies. There may be new opportunities in foreign markets, and currency ETFs can be a good way to access the trends.

Full disclosure: Tom Lydon is a board member of Rydex|SGI.

The opinions and forecasts expressed herein are solely those of Tom Lydon, and may not actually come to pass. Mr. Lydon serves as an independent trustee of certain mutual funds and ETFs that are managed by Guggenheim Investments; however, any opinions or forecasts expressed herein are solely those of Mr. Lydon and not those of Guggenheim Funds, Guggenheim Investments, Guggenheim Specialized Products, LLC or any of their affiliates. Information on this site should not be used or construed as an offer to sell, a solicitation of an offer to buy, or a recommendation for any product.