If life imitates art, so can the workings of high finance. The foreign-exchange markets are a timely case in point as policy makers and traders alike obsess over a return to the “Currency Wars” that so bewildered markets in 2010.
The official line on the Feb. 16 Group of 20 meeting is that such conflict was avoided, and that the risks of clashing exchange-rate ambitions are overblown. Yet bad blood in currencyland hasn’t been averted. It’s merely gone underground.
Since the meeting, for example, Reserve Bank of New Zealand Governor Graeme Wheeler, whose nation is not in the G-20, declared he’s ready to intervene in markets to prove “the kiwi is not a one-way bet.” Currencies are a world of winks, nods and secret handshakes, and this is what we call a pulled punch. It’s a sign of stealth action to come, but action nonetheless.
“There seems to be a sense that the gloves are off in terms of central-bank action in currency markets,” Mitul Kotecha, global head of foreign-exchange strategy in Hong Kong at Credit Agricole SA, told Bloomberg News. “Wheeler’s comments are a clear reflection of the G-20 stance, wherein the greenlight appears to be given to any central bank that wants to intervene in the currency as long as they don’t talk about particular levels.”
It sure does sound like the financial version of “Fight Club,” the 1996 Chuck Palahniuk novel turned into a 1999 film starring Edward Norton and Brad Pitt. The first rule of the tale’s clandestine brawls is that no one speaks of them. Likewise, the first rule about currency club is: You don’t talk about currency club. Slap on capital controls, if you must. Intervene if you have to. Just don’t talk about what you’re up, when or where.
In other words, if you think the Japanese yen’s 13 percent dive since Nov. 15 isn’t going to come to financial blows, you are dreaming. Just because the warning is going underground does mean it’s not going to bruise world markets.