Foreign Currency Exchange Rates

Unpredictable foreign currency exchange rates and intractable Eurozone debt have had another victim. A US brokerage firm, MF Global, is going bankrupt after a series of bad bets on Eurozone debt and the Euro. The company, run by a former US Senator and Governor of New Jersey, took Euro positions in order to buy sovereign debt of a number of the PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain) group. These nations have large national debts and have required bailout by the wealthier members of the EU in order to avoid debt default. Greece has had an especially difficult time with requirements of austerity measures by creditors and resulting riots in the streets in protest.

Foreign exchange rates on the Euro have fluctuated up and down as the leaders of the EU have struggled in coming up with a package to bail out Greece and the other nations. When there is news of a possible agreement the Euro, and stocks throughout the world, go up. When there is a hint that the bailout will not go through foreign currency exchange rates on the Euro fall along with stocks from Europe to North America to Asia. The Forex news tells us that the US brokerage firm, MF Global, purchased debt instruments from several of the PIIGS nations in what many considered to be a risky strategy. If the so called bets had paid off the company would have prospered greatly. Unfortunately for the company and its investors the Euro debt situation has not improved and the value of leveraged investments by MF Global has plummeted. An additional problem has also arisen as the company sought to sell itself to outside investors. It turns out, according to press reports, that the company comingled its investor funds with its own funds and now they are in trouble with regulators, to the tune of a several hundreds of millions of US dollars.

MF Global will be number seven on a list of US companies that have declared bankruptcy. The bankruptcy will involve several billions in assets, dwarfing the issue of misallocation of funds. This situation highlights the risk of trading and investing when there are volatile foreign currency exchange rates as well a monstrous series of national debts in Europe. If the company had guessed right and the debt dilemma had rectified itself it would have made huge profits. However, it did not and now will seek bankruptcy protection in court.

In dealing with volatile foreign currency exchange rates and allied issues of national debt smart traders typically hedge their bets. For example, options trading is popular in that it limits the risk of loss while still providing leverage when buying puts or calls on currency trades. In selling options, however, there is the potential for huge losses if foreign currency exchange rates move contrary to expectations. A trader who owns a currency can sell calls on it and only lose to the extent that the currency drops in price. A trader who trades on margin and sells calls can lose his investment capital and be subject to a margin call if there is a big change in foreign currency exchange rates. Thus the practice of selling calls and puts in foreign currency trading is typically limited to large institutional investors with very deep pockets. However, even the large investment houses can go down if their leveraged bets on foreign currency exchange rates and national debt go awry, as evidenced by the mess that MF Global finds itself in today.