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Shipping index indicates gains for countries exporting commodities

Shipping index indicates gains for countries exporting commodities
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First Published: Tue, Feb 17 2009. 09 18 PM IST

 Setting a floor: A ship moored in Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong. The shipping gauge is a sign China’s $580 billion stimulus spending on housing, roads, power grids and airports will have an impact be
Setting a floor: A ship moored in Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong. The shipping gauge is a sign China’s $580 billion stimulus spending on housing, roads, power grids and airports will have an impact be
Updated: Tue, Feb 17 2009. 09 18 PM IST
New York / Sydney: Shipping costs have more than doubled this year, so it may be time to buy kroner, Aussies and loonies.
“The 147% jump in ocean transport prices is evidence that China’s $580 billion (Rs28.5 trillion now) stimulus plan will lift raw materials,” said Ihab Salib, who oversees $3 billion at Federated Investors Inc. in Pittsburgh, US. That would benefit countries exporting them, so Salib is actively trading Norway’s kroner and Australian and Canadian dollars, nicknamed Aussies and loonies.
Setting a floor: A ship moored in Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong. The shipping gauge is a sign China’s $580 billion stimulus spending on housing, roads, power grids and airports will have an impact beyond its borders. Jerome Favre / Bloomberg
Salib and other currency traders have started using the Baltic Dry Index’s global gauge of raw material shipping costs to help make such decisions. The index and the value of a basket of those three resource-rich countries’ currencies are increasingly moving in tandem—96% of the time in the past year, up from 84% in the past decade, data compiled by Bloomberg show.
Historically, the Baltic Dry Index is a good leading indicator for commodity prices, said Salib. Commodities are very depressed right now, and they offer good long-term value. Once they come back, these currencies should do well.
The shipping gauge is a sign that China’s stimulus spending on housing, highways, airports and power grids will have impact beyond its borders. By 28 February, it will have spent one-fourth of its stimulus budget, Deutsche Bank AG said on 20 January, predicting the country’s economy will grow at a 12% annual rate between the fourth and first quarter, after shrinking 2.3% between the third and fourth.
China is the world’s biggest consumer of copper and iron ore, and has helped each rally this year by about 10%, benefiting Australia and Canada, which account for 1/10th of world production of the two metals. Oil, Norway’s top export, will average $66 a barrel in the fourth quarter, up from an average of $40.62 since 1 January, according to the median forecast of 34 analysts surveyed by Bloomberg. China is the world’s second biggest energy user.
“If a China recovery helps to set a floor on commodity prices, it should be an important boost to commodity-linked currencies,” said Jim McCormick, Citigroup Inc.’s London-based global head of currencies, in a 5 February report.
So far this year, the krone is the second best performer among the 16 most actively traded currencies after Brazil’s real, rising 1% versus the US dollar to 7.0014 by 11.14am in London. The Australian dollar dropped 8.9% to 64.05 US cents. The Canadian dollar (C$) weakened 3.6% to C$1.2618.
Goldman Sachs predicts the Australian dollar will appreciate 9.5% to 71 cents in six months and the krone will gain 13% to 6 per dollar. Though Goldman sees the Canadian dollar little changed at C$1.25, the loonie has tracked the shipping index 72% of the time for the past five years.
A comparison of the three currencies’ US dollar values and the shipping index shows that the former often follow the latter, which is compiled by the Baltic Exchange, a London maritime organization named for the 18th century coffee shop to which it traces its roots.
The index hit a two-and-a-half years low on 7 November 2001, following the 9/11 attacks. By eight months later, the three currencies had gained an average of 9%. The index peaked at 11,793 on 20 May 2008. By July, the Aussie, loonie and krone all were falling steadily; in the year’s second half, they declined 27%, 16%, and 27%, respectively. The index’s climb to this year’s 11 February peak of 2055 followed a 92% decline in 2008.
Richard Benson, who oversees $14 billion in currency funds at Millennium Asset Management in London, said many of his peers dismissed the significance of the shipping index when it started falling last year.
“It actually proved to be a very good indicator,” Benson said. “When you piece together different bits of information, and the shipping index certainly is one of them, you’ll find the market is moving in the same direction. There’s huge, huge potential for commodity currencies.”
“Investors are betting on all three currencies, with net flows into them in the past three months as much as four times stronger than the past year’s average,” said Samarjit Shankar, global markets strategy director in Boston for Bank of New York Mellon Corp.
Millennium Asset started buying Australian dollars this month and Norwegian kroner in January. Benson predicts the krone will appreciate 5% to 8.30 per euro, and the Aussie will hit 72.50 cents versus the US dollar, with high 70s quite achievable.
David Tien, who helps money managers at Fischer Francis Trees and Watts oversee funds worth $29 billion as of mid-2008, said his firm has bulked up on the Aussie and the krone. About 8% of the currency fund he oversees is in kroner and 15% is in Australian dollars.
Tien said the shipping index backs up other evidence that China’s stimulus is working, including its loan growth, which reached a record 1.62 trillion yuan (Rs11.7 trillion now) in January, twice the record set in 2008.
“China’s stimulus is really just getting under way,” Tien said. “What that means is, within about one month or two months, you are going to see a spur in commodity demand. We think it’s a great time to invest in kroner and Aussies.”
A rebound in hard commodities would benefit companies such as Stavanger-based StatoilHydro, Norway’s top oil producer; Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan Inc. in Canada, the world’s largest fertilizer producer by market value; and Melbourne-based BHP Billiton Ltd, the world’s biggest mining company.
Those companies’ shares have risen 5.6%, 18%, and 5.2%, respectively, this year.
A strengthening of the krone, Aussie and loonie would hurt exporters who report in their local currencies such as Melbourne-based Alumina Ltd, a partner in the world’s biggest producer of the material used to make aluminium, and Newcrest Mining Ltd, Australia’s largest gold mining firm, which returned to profit in the first half as prices of bullion in Australian dollars rose to a record on 12 February.
Spending by China alone may not be enough to drive up demand for commodities and related currencies.
Last month, the International Monetary Fund cut its estimate for world growth this year to 0.5%, the weakest since World War II.
Joel Crane, Deutsche Bank strategist in New York, said in a 13 February report that while upward momentum remains in the Baltic Dry Index, its growth rate may slow in the coming weeks.
Anthony Michael, who helps oversee $158 billion globally as Asian head of fixed income at Aberdeen Asset Management Asia Ltd, said the Canadian dollar may lag the Australian currency. “One of our most favourable currency bets is that the Australian economy is going to recover through being leveraged off Asia much better than Canada,” said Singapore-based Michael, who advises betting on the Aussie against the loonie.
Another risk is foreign exchange volatility, which remains high.
Options traders see major currencies swinging as much as 19% in the next three months, compared with the four-year average of 9.7%, according to JPMorgan Chase and Co.’s G-7 Volatility Index.
“Commodity currencies are attractive on a one-year horizon,” said Steven Englander, chief US currency strategist at Barclays Capital in New York. “First quarter, first half of the year? I am not sure. Longer term, we expect them to appreciate significantly, but be careful about your timing.”
Sara Eisen contributed to this story.
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First Published: Tue, Feb 17 2009. 09 18 PM IST