Emerging Markets Snap Up Cheap Dollars to Build Reserves

Indian Rupee
Foreigners increased their Indian holdings by 21 percent this year, spurring a 3.6 percent rise in the rupee. Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg

Nations from Colombia to Indonesia are taking advantage of the longest emerging-market currencies rally since 2009 to pile up record reserves, bolstering their ability to fend off the next foreign-exchange crisis.

The 12 developing nations with the biggest foreign reserves outside of China added $34 billion in the past three months, lifting their combined holdings to $2.98 trillion on April 30, the most since Bloomberg began compiling the data in 2008. A gauge of 20 emerging-market currencies is recovering after tumbling in February to the lowest level since April 2009.

“It makes sense to make hay while the sun’s shining, as they may have used up some reserves,” Clyde Wardle, a strategist at HSBC Holdings Plc, said in a phone interview from New York on May 8.

Emerging-market reserves were depleted by $22 billion in January alone as nations fended off currency speculators to tackle the fallout from the Federal Reserve cutting bond-buying and global political and financial instability. Since then, the currencies gauge has rallied 5 percent from the February low, with policy makers now buying dollars to temper the gains, which make exports more expensive, while giving themselves more resources to help curb selloffs in the future.

‘Under Pressure’

Bloomberg’s index of 20 major emerging-market currencies fell 3 percent in January in the worst start to a year since 2009, in a rout sparked by events ranging from the Fed’s decision to start pulling back on stimulus to a slowdown in Chinese manufacturing and the devaluation of Argentina’s peso. Turkey and South Africa sought to stem a run on their currencies by raising interest rates.

Of the dozen biggest reserve holders among developing economies, India, Indonesia and Turkey boosted their holdings the most as government efforts to tame volatility and narrow current-account deficits succeeded in luring back overseas investors.

“Some countries where reserves seemed to be under pressure, like India and Indonesia, have recovered,” Alan Ruskin, the global head of Group-of-10 foreign exchange at Deutsche Bank AG in New York, said in a May 7 phone interview.

Overseas Investors

India’s coffers expanded 7.6 percent since the end of January through yesterday to $285 billion after touching a three-year low of $247 billion in September. Indonesia’s reserves gained 4.9 percent and Turkey’s rose 4.1 percent.

The reserve pools have expanded as global investors returned to buying the nations’ assets. Foreigners hold record amount of Indonesian local-currency bonds, while they increased their Indian holdings by 21 percent this year, spurring a 6.3 percent surge in the rupiah versus the U.S. currency and a 3.6 percent rise in the rupee.

Net overseas purchases of Turkish debt were $697 million this quarter, trimming net selling this year to $2.9 billion. The lira has climbed 3.8 percent versus the dollar in 2014.

China, not included in the reserves index because its size would skew results, boosted foreign reserves by $126.8 billion in the first quarter to a record $3.95 trillion.

Russia has been an exception among developing economies, depleting its reserves to stem losses in the ruble triggered by the country’s escalating conflict with neighboring Ukraine.

Putin Pressure

Bank Rossii sold $24.7 billion and 2.5 billion euros ($3.4 billion) in the past two months as international sanctions against officials including President Vladimir Putin prompted investors to pull money from Russia.

The ruble has weakened 5.1 percent this year against the dollar, the worst performance after Argentina’s peso among 24 emerging-markets currencies tracked by Bloomberg.

“For the medium term, reserve depletion is an important risk to watch,” Jacob Nell, a London-based economist at Morgan Stanley, said in an e-mail on May 12.

For countries that rely on exports for economic growth, building reserves helps temper currency gains to maintain competitiveness in global markets.

Colombia saw reserves rise 0.7 percent in March to $41.8 billion, the biggest increase since September, as the peso’s almost 5 percent advance over the past three months allowed it to buy the U.S. currency more cheaply. It’s the fourth best-performer among developing currencies during that period, data compiled by Bloomberg show.

Buying Time

The finance ministry of the Andean nation, which exports coal, oil, and coffee, will restart dollar purchases as a competitive exchange rate is “for the benefit of the country,” minister Mauricio Cardenas said on Twitter yesterday.

In South Korea, where exports account for about half of the $1 trillion economy, foreign-currency reserves climbed to a record $354 billion by the end of March as the central bank said it would move to stabilize the currency if necessary. The won has strengthened 2.1 this year.

“A very-appreciated currency will in the short term reduce the competitiveness of the local economy -- it’s a logical move to try and take the most of the inflows by adding to international reserves,” Gabriel Gersztein, head of Latam currency strategy at BNP Paribas SA in Sao Paulo, said May 7. “A country with a high level of reserves is a country that’s better prepared to weather any kind of financial crisis.”

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