Global currency fund managers racked up gains in the first quarter as they benefited from the extreme volatility that the coronavirus pandemic has stoked across financial markets.
The BarclayHedge currency traders index was up 6.13% for the first three months of the year and posted a 2.54% gain for March, according to data the firm posted on Friday, showing results for 42% of the funds it tracks.
By contrast, the S&P 500 fell 20% in the first quarter in its worst quarterly decline since March 2009, while U.S. crude oil lost 66%.
Driving the gains in currency funds has been a surge in the market swings that traders need to make money, as expectations of the worldwide coronavirus-fueled slowdown prompted investors to move out of a broad range of currencies and into the U.S. dollar.
The first quarter followed a long period of sleepy trading in currency markets that had frustrated investors and shuttered numerous funds over the years.
“March was a period of wild deleveraging, sharp reversals, and extreme moves,” said Richard Benson, co-chief investment officer at Millennium Global Investments in London, with $18 billion in assets under management.
Deutsche Bank’s currency volatility index shot up to 16.36 on March 19, its highest level since at least 2012. It now stands at 10.63. In specific currency pairs, such as dollar/yen, the surge was even more significant, hitting levels last seen in November 2008 in the midst of the global financial crisis.
Many of the market’s gyrations have hinged on moves in the U.S. dollar and, to a lesser degree, other haven currencies such as the yen and Swiss franc.
The dollar was the foreign exchange market’s best performer in the first quarter, notching gains of about 2.6% against a basket of major currencies as economic slowdown fears pushed investors to sell assets across the board and pile into cash.
The dollar rose 1% last month despite a slew of measures from the Federal Reserve to flood the financial system with greenbacks to address a liquidity crunch caused in part by demand for U.S. currency.
The Swiss franc and the yen, two other popular destinations for nervous investors, were up 3% and 1% respectively in the first quarter.
Other currencies saw deep losses. Sharp declines in prices for oil, metals, and other raw materials sparked routs in commodity currencies like the Australian dollar and Norwegian krone, which fell 12% and 18% in the first quarter, respectively.
Declines in some emerging markets currencies at the end of the March were particularly eye-popping. The Brazilian real fell 23% in the quarter while the Mexican peso slid 20%.
“In periods like this, you should be long the U.S. dollar, the yen, and Swiss franc and short everything with low liquidity like the Swedish krona, Norwegian krona, and currencies close to global growth like the Australian and Canadian dollars,” said Momtchil Pojarliev, head of currencies at BNP Asset Management in New York.
BNP Paribas Asset Management’s currency program was also up in March, notching 1.5%-2% return on 5% volatility. Long positions in the U.S. dollar and Japanese yen helped BNP’s performance, Pojarliev said.
“If anyone has made money in this environment, it is by being risk averse quite quickly,” said Adrian Lee, president and chief investment officer at active currency manager Adrian Lee & Partners, which oversees $12 billion in assets.
“To some extent, there was a very gradual response to all the information that was coming out of China. So we went risk averse from the end of February and we still are.”
Lee and Millennium’s Benson both said their funds gained in March.