x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

To exchange or not: Expats have much to consider

World currencies aren't immune to the current economic volatility.

A more immediate concern for expats with a foot in at least two countries is what happens to currencies. Volatility isn't limited to stock markets, currencies are also in the firing line with the world losing faith in its reserve currency, the US dollar, but having nothing to take its place.

The euro has been strong, largely thanks to Germany, but its very survival is now at stake. The pound is still down but safe havens - the Japanese yen and Swiss franc - have soared, despite devaluation attempts by central bankers.

As the crisis intensifies, more countries will probably play beggar-my-neighbour by engaging in competitive devaluation of their currencies. So what do expats who earn their income in US dollar-pegged UAE dirhams, but have assets and financial responsibilities in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Asia and beyond, do now?

The knee-jerk reaction is to dump all risk and repatriate your money to your home country, says Sabrina Derrough, senior FX consultant at currency-transfer service HIFX. "If you hold US dollars, you are in a quandary. The obvious reaction is to sell the currency of any country that has seen its credit rating downgraded, as has just happened to the US. But how can you, when it has been the ultimate safe haven since the war?"

James Thomas, regional director at Acuma Wealth Management in Dubai, says: "Unless you have urgent expenses in your home country, I would suggest you hang onto your dollars for the time being, and wait to see if it strengthens. You might find a better time to transfer your money when things settle."

When the going gets tough, people have reacted by buying the dollar and US Treasuries. That looks likely to continue. "The dollar could even strengthen in the short term, as repatriations kick in and demand intensifies. We saw this happen during the 2008 crisis," adds Ms Derrough.

The Australian, New Zealand and Canadian dollars have been seen as safe havens, and their economies should benefit from the continued global growth story. But they can still be volatile, as we saw with the Australian dollar last week, she says.

Currency pairs such as the euro/dollar and sterling/dollar continue to trade within a relatively stable range, but there is no guarantee this will continue. Ultimately, Ms Derrough believes there is only one winner in all this uncertainty: "Gold has skyrocketed. It seems like we have taken a quantum leap back in time, back to the days of the gold standard."

* Harvey Jones