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Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) have been growing in popularity with investors and their advisers.  They offer low costs and opportunities to more precisely create an asset allocation or take advantage of trading and hedging ideas.

Currency Exchange Traded Funds have grown popular over the course of 2011 to investors who are attempting to gain exposure to foreign currency while avoiding the cost and complexity of the foreign exchange (Forex) market. Investing in foreign stocks and bonds can be a good investment when looking for a financial diversification and also offer the potential of producing substantial returns.

Up until recently, an investor’s only choice to hedge foreign exposure has been through the Forex markets. These markets can be complex for most investors and require substantial capital at risk.  Investing in Forex is promoted by some as a speculative way to make profits.  But an investment in foreign currency comes with the risk of losing money through exchange rates.

ETF’s that focus on currencies are a less complex way to hedge an overseas investment. They give the average investor the opportunity to invest away from the US dollar. ETF’s are also used as ideal instruments for investors to diminish the loss of money due to exchange rates.

Why Invest in Currency Exchange Traded Funds?

Investing in an ETF is much less complex than investing in the Forex market. Although the Forex is the most liquid market (trillions are traded each day), it can be difficult for the average investor to get a seat at the table considering the capital that may be needed and the trading costs incurred. ETF’s offer a simpler way to invest in foreign markets.

If an investor feels as though there is potential economic growth overseas or in an emerging market, ETF’s are a perfect vehicle for international exposure.  Buying individual stocks overseas may be difficult for US investors and may be costly as well.  Mutual funds are a great way to gain access but they have higher costs compared to ETFs.

Why invest in currencies?  Consider this:  Living in the US means that your source of income and most of your investments are denominated in US dollars.  If your portfolio is loaded with domestic investments (and most investors tend to be woefully under-allocated in foreign equity positions), adding a currency ETF to your portfolio can help balance your investments and add diversity to your portfolio away from the US dollar.

Let’s say you are investing overseas through mutual funds in your 401(k) or brokerage account.  Most of these portfolio managers tend to not hedge their exposure to currency changes.  This can turn a positive fund return into a loss when converting back to the US dollar.

Now an investor may want to hedge by holding a position in a foreign currency.  But investing in foreign markets can be risky because of the constant fluctuation of currency and exchange rates. The currency market never closes and is open twenty-four hours of everyday. For the average investor, constantly keeping up with the currencies to figure out the best times to sell and buy may not be worthwhile and result in a loss in money (as well as sleep).   ETF’s offer a more efficient opportunity to manage these risks of foreign investments.

Why bother?  Well, just look at the news headlines.  There continues to be debt crises in foreign and US markets.  This tends to lead to potentially higher interest rates as investors demand a higher return for attracting their money to a particular country.  Higher interest rates in turn will negatively impact the value of the currency and lead to a “weaker” currency. (The upside, on the other hand, is that a weak dollar, for example, will make our exports more competitively priced and help those business dealing overseas).

Investors may be interested in “safe haven” currencies during poor financial times. Countries with strong political stability, low inflation, and stable monetary and fiscal policies tend to be magnets for money in tough times. While that doesn’t necessarily describe the US right now, we are still considered the best option out there as a “safe haven.”

Hedging Examples

According to this article appearing on Investopedia, “a weakening currency can drag down positive returns or exacerbate negative returns in an investment portfolio. For example, Canadian investors who were invested in the S&P 500 from January 2000 to May 2009 had returns of -44.1% in Canadian dollar terms (compared with returns for -26% for the S&P 500 in U.S. dollar terms), because they were holding assets in a depreciating currency (the U.S. dollar, in this case).”

Disadvantages of ETF’s

No investment comes without risks and ETFs and currency ETFs in particular are no different. As is the case with many ETFs, there is always the issue of liquidity of the ETF.  (An ETF without a deep market or volume can produce exaggerated and volatile price changes). And in the case of currency ETFs there is the added issue of dealing with foreign taxes.

The Bottom Line

Whether or not a currency ETF makes sense for your particular situation is something that only you with the help of a qualified professional can determine.

But you should at least be aware of the tools available that may help you protect your portfolio. At the very least, it makes sense to hedge overseas investments especially during volatile times.

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