How to Avoid Exchange Rate Risk

09/07/2015 9:00 am EST

Focus: FOREX

Elvis Picardo

Vice President - Research, Associate Portfolio Manager, Global Securities Corp.

While foreign exchange (forex) risk cannot be avoided altogether when investing overseas, Elvis Picardo, of Investopedia.com, outlines how it can be mitigated considerably through the use of these hedging techniques.

Exchange rate risk—or foreign exchange (forex) risk—is an unavoidable risk of foreign investing but one that can be mitigated considerably through the use of hedging techniques. In order to totally eliminate forex risk, the obvious choice is to avoid investing in overseas assets altogether. But this may not be the best alternative from the viewpoint of portfolio diversification, since numerous studies have shown that foreign investing improves portfolio return while reducing risk.

For the US investor, the subject of hedging exchange rate risk assumes particular importance when the US dollar is surging—as it did during 2014-15—since it can erode returns from overseas investments. An analysis by Blackrock's iShares shows significant divergence between hedged and unhedged returns for major MSCI indexes in 2014. For example, while the return from the MSCI EAFE Index (hedged to USD) was +5.7% in 2014, the unhedged return was -4.9%.

Of course, for overseas investors, the reverse is true, especially at times when US investments are outperforming. This is because the depreciation of the local currency against the USD can provide an additional boost to returns. In such situations, since exchange rate movement is working in the investor's favor, the appropriate course of action would be to go unhedged.

The is to leave exchange rate risk with regard to your foreign investments unhedged when your local currency is depreciating against the foreign-investment currency, but hedge this risk when your local currency is appreciating against the foreign-investment currency. Let's look at a few methods for mitigating this risk.

Methods of Hedging Risk

Invest in Hedged Assets: The easiest solution is to invest in hedged overseas assets, such as hedged exchange-traded funds (ETFs). ETFs are available for a very wide range of underlying assets traded in most major markets. Many ETF providers offer hedged and unhedged versions of their funds that track popular investment benchmarks or indexes. Although the hedged fund will generally have a slightly higher expense ratio than its unhedged counterpart due to the cost of hedging, large ETFs can hedge currency risk at a fraction of the hedging cost incurred by an individual investor. For example, continuing with the aforementioned example of the MSCI EAFE index—the primary benchmark for US investors to measure international equity performance—the expense ratio for the iShares MSCI EAFE ETF (EFA) is 0.33%. The expense ratio for the iShares Currency Hedged MSCI EAFE ETF (HEFA) is 0.70% (although the Fund has waived 35 basis points of the management fee, for a net fee of 0.35%). The marginally higher fee for the hedged version may have been worth it in this instance, since the EFA (unhedged ETF) was up 5.64% for the year (to August 14, 2015), while the HEFA (hedged ETF) was up 11.19%.

NEXT PAGE: Do You Possess a Truly Diversified Portfolio?

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Hedge Exchange Rate Risk Yourself: If you possess a truly diversified portfolio, chances are that you have a degree of forex exposure should the portfolio contain foreign-currency stocks or bonds or American Depositary Receipts (ADRs...a common misconception is that their currency risk is hedged; the reality is that it isn't).

Instruments for Hedging Currency Risk

In such cases, you can hedge currency risk using one or more of the following instruments:

  1. Currency forwards: Currency forwards can be effectively used to hedge currency risk. For example, assume a US investor has a euro-denominated bond maturing in a year's time and is concerned about the risk of the euro declining against the US dollar in that time frame. He or she can therefore enter into a forward contract to sell euros (in an amount equal to the maturity value of the bond) and buy US dollars at the one-year forward rate. While the advantage of forward contracts is that they can be customized to specific amounts and maturities, a major drawback is that they are not readily accessible to individual investors. An alternative way to hedge currency risk is to construct a synthetic forward contract using the money market hedge.
  1. Currency futures: Currency futures are widely used to hedge exchange rate risk because they trade on an exchange and need only a small amount of upfront margin. The disadvantages are that they cannot be customized and are only available for fixed dates.
  1. Currency ETFs: The availability of ETFs that have a specific currency as the underlying asset means that currency ETFs can be used to hedge exchange rate risk. This is probably not the most effective way to hedge exchange risk for larger amounts. But for individual investors, their ability to be used for small amounts, plus the fact that they are margin-eligible and can be traded on the long or short side, are major benefits.
  1. Currency Options: Currency options offer another feasible alternative to hedge exchange rate risk. Currency options give an investor or trader the right to buy or sell a specific currency in a specified amount on or before the expiration date at the strike price. For example, currency options traded on the Nasdaq are available in denominations of EUR 10,000, GBP 10,000, CAD 10,000, or JPY 1,000,000, making them well-suited for the individual investor.

The Bottom Line

Exchange rate risk cannot be avoided altogether when investing overseas, but it can be mitigated considerably through the use of hedging techniques. The easiest solution is to invest in hedged investments such as hedged ETFs, since the fund manager can hedge forex risk at a relatively lower cost. However, an investor who holds foreign-currency stocks or bonds—or even ADRs—should consider hedging exchange rate risk using one of the many avenues available, such as currency forwards, futures, ETFs, or options.

By Elvis Picardo, Contributor, Investopedia.com

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