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Hedged or unhedged shares? Your guide to international share trading and currency risk

Planning to diversify your portfolio by investing internationally? Here's everything you need to know about managing risk via hedged and unhedged international equities.

International share trading accounts have made it easier for you to access overseas stock exchanges and trade shares in some of the world’s biggest companies such as Facebook, Amazon, Google and Apple. However, unlike investing in local companies listed on the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX), the Australian dollar's continually fluctuating rate can positively or negatively impact your overseas investments.

You can choose to protect yourself from currency risk by purchasing hedged international shares.

This guide helps you through the complexities of currency risk and answers all your questions about purchasing hedged and unhedged international investments so you can invest overseas worry-free.

What does currency have to do with my international unhedged investments?

When you purchase shares in an Australian company, whether or not your investment made a profit will largely depend on the change in the company's stock price. If the price goes up 3%, the value of your investment will also be up 3%. However, that’s not necessarily the case when you trade shares on the international markets.

When you invest internationally through shares or an exchange-traded-fund (ETF), your investments will be impacted by changes in the Australian dollar. This type of investment is called “unhedged” because it is not protected against currency movements.

Let’s take a look at a hypothetical situation

Let’s say you decide to invest in a US-based company called America Corp which trades on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE). You purchase 50 unhedged shares in the company at USD$50 per share when the exchange rate is USD$1 = AUD$1.10.

To work out how much this transaction costs you in Australian dollars you start with the amount of shares purchased (50 shares) and multiply it by the cost in US dollars (USD$50 per share), 50 x USD$50 = USD$2,500. Then you take that amount and multiply it by the price of the Australian dollar (AUD$1.10), USD$2,500 x AUD$1.10 = AUD$2,750. Therefore the value of the shares in Australian dollars is AUD$2,750.

Jump forward twelve months and the price of America Corp stock has risen 20% to USD$60 per share, meaning the 50 shares you purchased are now worth USD$3,000 (a gain of USD$500). You decide to cash in on your investment.

However, over the same 12-month period, while shares in America Corp rose by 20%, the value of the Aussie dollar also rose against the US dollar. Let’s say it rose by 20%. That means that the exchange rate is now USD$1 = AUD $0.88. Therefore, when you go to exchange your USD$3,000 dollars for Australian dollars, you only receive AUD$2,640 (or USD$3,000 x 0.88). Given that you originally invested AUD$2,750, that represents a loss of $110.

Not such a great investment in the end. Don’t lose hope because by the same logic, the effect of currency fluctuations on your unhedged investments makes it possible for you to make money if the value of AUD compared to USD has decreased. No matter what, you can’t afford to ignore the currency variation effect when investing internationally.

Summary

Purchasing unhedged stocks and ETFs can be a good thing if the Australian dollar falls. However if the Australian dollar increases in value relative to foreign currencies, the value of your portfolio would decrease when converted back into Australian dollars delivering you low returns even when your investments have performed well.

How can I protect my international investment against currency fluctuations (hedged investments)?

To alleviate the risks of currency movements, investment managers use “currency hedging” to protect themselves when investing internationally. The object of hedging is to ensure that the only factor influencing your returns is the gain and losses generated by the underlying investments – not currency movements as well.

The process is quite complex, but generally speaking investment managers will enter into a foreign currency option or a cross-country swap to protect themselves against unexpected changes in currency exchange rates. Think of it like an insurance policy, protecting your investments from foreign exchange risk.

However, it is important to remember that while hedging your stocks and ETFs can protect you from currency movements, they won’t benefit you financially if the Australian dollar falls relative to the currency in which your investments are held.

What hedging options are there?

International shares can be fully hedged, partially hedged or unhedged:

  • Fully hedged – where all of your investments are protected from the effects of currency movements
  • Partially hedged – where your investments are partially protected from the effects of currency movements
  • Unhedged - where your investments are not protected from the effects of currency movements

To hedge or not to hedge: What to consider?

The decision on whether to hedge or not to hedge your international investment ultimately comes down to one key question: what are you trying to achieve?

  • Level of risk

If you’re trying to reduce your overall portfolio risk by purchasing short-term investments such as international bonds, then you may want to consider hedging as part of your strategy. A fixed-interest oriented portfolio will benefit from hedging more than share-based portfolios because currency movements are typically more volatile than bonds. Hedging will enable you to gain exposure to foreign companies with the currency risk removed.

However, if you’re trying to maximise returns, then gaining exposure to foreign companies and foreign currency via unhedged international shares and ETFs can be beneficial, especially when the Australian dollar is falling relative to the US dollar.

  • The cost

One other important aspect to consider when deciding to hedge or not to hedge is the cost. While both types of investments come with investment management fees and indirect costs, the cost of a hedging strategy will typically be higher and you’re incurring an additional expense. Generally speaking you can expect to add an additional fee of five to ten basis points to the cost of an unhedged version. For a hedging strategy to be successful, the benefits must outweigh the costs.

  • The country, its economy and political risk

Every international investment you make will be subject to country-specific political, economic and regulatory risk, and while you might find it easy to keep track of what’s going on in Australia, it’s much harder to keep up with what’s happening overseas. If you’re investing in a developed country which has a relatively stable market and economy, the risk of the currency rapidly moving in any direction in low. However, if you’re investing in a developing country whose currency is highly volatile and fluctuates often, then you may want to consider hedging your investments.

The pros and cons of hedging

Pros:

  • Exchange rate locked in
  • Won't be affected by currency movements (one less thing to worry about)
  • Benefit if the value of AUD has increased relative to the currency you’re trading in (compared to if you had bought unhedged shares/ETFs)

Cons:

  • Potentially more expensive
  • Won’t benefit if the value of AUD has decreased relative to the currency you’re trading in

Six key factors that affect exchange rates

“Exchange rate” is defined as: "the price of a nation's currency in terms of another currency". The exchange rate of the Australian dollar may fluctuate daily due to several factors that go into its valuation. When deciding to invest internationally, it is important to understand what factors determine exchange rates:

  • Government debt

A country with high government debt is less likely to attract foreign investment, leading to inflation. As a result, a decrease in the value of its exchange rate will most likely follow.

  • Inflation Rates

As a general rule of thumb, a country with a consistently lower inflation rate will generally see an increase in the value of its currency, while a country with higher inflation typically sees a decrease in its currency.

  • Political stability

A country with a low risk of political unrest is more attractive to foreign investors. Increased foreign investment, in turn, leads to an increase in the value of the domestic currency. However, a country susceptible to political unrest may see a depreciation in foreign investment and its exchange rates.

  • Interest Rates

Increases in national interest rates will generally cause a country's currency to increase because higher interest rates give higher rates to lenders, attracting more foreign investors, which causes a rise in exchange rates.

  • Market speculation

If the value of a country's currency is expected to rise, investors will increase demand of that currency in order to make an expected profit in the near future. As a result, the currency value will rise.

  • Recession

When a country goes through a recession, its interest rates are likely to fall, depressing its chances to gain foreign investment. As a result, its currency weakens in comparison to that of other countries, thereby lowering the exchange rate.

How can I buy hedged / unhedged international shares?

You can trade international shares from Australia with an online share trading account from one of the big banks or online brokers. These brokers provide an online platform you can use to conduct trades 24/7. Most providers even have smartphone applications for when you’re on the go.

Like all types of investing, there are risks involved with international share trading in addition to currency risk including fluctuating market conditions, and complex tax legislation. (Read more about international share trading accounts in our comprehensive guide here).

You can apply for an international share trading account online in less than 15 minutes if you are over the age of 18, have an Australian residential address and a valid contact number.

Make sure you also have on hand photo ID such as your passport, driver’s licence or proof of age card, and your tax file number.

How can I buy hedged/unhedged ETFs that track international markets?

An international exchange-traded-fund (ETF) is a simple and affordable way for you to access multiple international shares in a single trade.

In basic terms, an ETF is a collection (or "basket") of tens, hundreds, or sometimes thousands of stocks or bonds, which is designed to go up or down in value in line with the index it is tracking. Unlike a managed investment fund, an ETF trades like a common stock on a stock exchange like the ASX, the New York Stock Exchange or Nasdaq. An international-share ETF works much the same way, allowing you to invest in multiple international companies in a single trade.

There are a several ways you can invest in foreign markets via hedged or unhedged ETFs:

TypeDescriptionExample
Global or world ETFs (hedged)Gain exposure to both foreign and U.S. markets (hedged to the Australian dollar)The iShares Global 100 AUD Hedged ETF aims to provide investors with the performance of the market as represented by an index composed of 100 large capitalisation global equities. The ETF is hedged to Australian dollars so the value of the fund is relatively unaffected by currency fluctuations.
Global or world ETFs (unhedged)Gain exposure to both foreign and U.S. markets (unhedged to the Australian dollar)The SPDR S&P World ex Australia Fund seeks to track the performance of the S&P Developed ex Australia LargeMidCap AUD Index. The ETF is unhedged and therefore exposed to the fluctuating values of foreign currencies.
Regional ETFs (hedged)Invest primarily in a specific part of the world, like Europe or the Pacific region (hedged to the Australian dollar)The iShares Currency Hedged MSCI Eurozone ETF says it "seeks to track the investment results of an index composed of large- and mid-capitalisation equities from developed market countries which use the Euro as their official currency." The ETF is hedged to Australian dollars so currency fluctuations leave the fund's value relatively unaffected.
Regional ETFs (unhedged)Invest primarily in a specific part of the world, like Europe or the Pacific region (unhedged to the Australian dollar)The iShares’ Asia 50 ETF provides access to 50 of the largest Asia stocks in one fund. The ETF is unhedged and therefore exposed to the fluctuating values of foreign currencies.
Sector ETFs (hedged)Invest solely in international businesses that operate in a particular industry or sector of the economy (hedged to the Australian dollar)BetaShares Global Agriculture ETF - Currency Hedged aims to track the performance of an index that provides exposure to the largest global agriculture companies (excluding companies listed in Australia). The ETF is hedged to Australian dollars so the fund’s value is relatively unaffected by currency fluctuations.
Sector ETFs (unhedged)Invest solely in international businesses that operate in a particular industry or sector of the economy (unhedged to the Australian dollar)The SPDR Dow Jones Global Real Estate Fund seeks to provide investment return, before fees and other costs, that closely correspond to the Dow Jones Global Select Real Estate Securities Index performance. The ETF is unhedged and therefore exposed foreign currencies’ fluctuating values.

Note: More than one currency will affect an ETF that tracks global markets.

In Australia, there are a variety of companies that list international hedged/unhedged ETFs on the ASX including:

  • BetaShares
  • Vanguard
  • ANZ/ETF Securities
  • BlackRock
  • Van Eck Global
  • State Street
  • UBS

If you’ve researched international ETFs benefits and risks and you’re ready to get started, you’ll need to sign up for an online trading account. Read more about ETFs in our comprehensive guide here.

Compare your hedged/unhedged trading options today

Updated October 23rd, 2018
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