By Vidya Ranganathan and Nichola Saminather
SINGAPORE (Reuters) - No matter who wins the race for the White House, markets are betting on one truly safe investment, and that is the currency of a country with bleak economic prospects - Japan.
Markets had long been pricing in a victory for Democrat Hillary Clinton, but opinion polls over the past week have shown the race narrowing with the outcome now hinging on several battleground states in the Nov. 8 election.
That has meant investors have had to do some repositioning lately, betting or hedging on one of the candidates or just piling into traditional safe havens such as gold and U.S. Treasuries.
On Monday, however, stocks rose and the dollar rallied after the FBI said it stood by its earlier recommendation that no criminal charges were warranted against Clinton.
At least for the short term, it is ironically the Japanese yen -- the currency of an economy mired in deflation, slow growth, deeply negative interest rates and a falling stock market -- that fund managers think is the safest bet in Asia.
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"If Trump wins, you'll get risk-off sentiment and you'll see the dollar losing against the Swiss franc, yen and euro," said Mary Nicola, investment strategist at Aviva Investors Asia. They have $448 million of assets in the region.
"If you get a Clinton win, you will get a relief rally in markets so you could potentially see dollar weakness."
But the run-up to the election has seen a flight to safety.
The price of gold is up 3 percent in a month, while shares of gold mining firms have risen. Shares in Australia's Newcrest Mining have risen 13 percent in a month, with fund managers betting on a further rise should Trump win or if neither candidate emerges a clear winner.
A Clinton victory represents continuity in foreign and trade policies. It also implies greater regulation for the financial and pharmaceutical sectors in line with commitments from the Democratic Party platform.
Should Clinton win, emerging market assets should rally, cheering an end to a long spell of uncertainty and the unwinding of trades betting on a Trump presidency, market analysts say.
"If Clinton wins, emerging markets will see a lot more of a green light for capital flows at least for a short period of time," said Jeremy Lawson, chief economist for Standard Life Investments. "Thereafter, it depends on what the actual policies are."
But with the odds rising last week of Trump winning the presidency, a lot more market preparations lately have been around the risks that he wins.
Some investors have held short positions in South Korea's won, China's yuan and the Malaysian ringgit -- currencies vulnerable to shifts in risk appetite or potentially global trade frictions if Trump wins.
"Our global base case for a Trump presidency would, therefore, be a stronger U.S. dollar, weaker equities, weaker commodities, and an unclear direction of U.S. Treasuries," Citi analysts said in a note last week, adding that would invariably weaken emerging market currencies.
Trump has vowed to impose tariffs of up to 45 percent on Chinese imports and label China, the biggest foreign holder of U.S. Treasuries, a currency manipulator on his first day in office.
"The concern is that the U.S. does something that harms trade with China, and the Chinese will retaliate and it becomes a trade war," said Daniel Morris, senior investment strategist at BNP Paribas Investment Partners, based in London. That could spur sell-offs in smaller trading economies such as Singapore and Taiwan, he said.
"Regardless of who wins, we're not expecting any new trade agreements. In the worst-case scenario, we lose some. That’s generally bad for Asia," Morris said.
Exports make up a quarter of Asia's GDP and a fifth of it goes to the United States.
"Any currencies that are highly linked into the trade cycle will probably react badly in a Trump victory," said Mark Wills, managing director and head of investment solutions group, State Street Global Advisors, in Sydney. "The Australian dollar, for example, and the renminbi."
Citi analysts recommend buying the yen but shorting the Korean won as a hedge against a Trump victory. Viraj Patel, currency strategist at ING in London, expects the won will head to 1220 per dollar, a 6.5 percent decline from current levels, should Trump emerge victorious.
RENEWABLES AND DEFENCE
One 'Clinton' trade of late has been to buy north Asian renewable energy stocks, such as Taiwan's biggest solar cell maker Motech Industries.
"A Hillary win means Obama's renewable energy policy will likely be extended," said Susan Chu, a spokeswoman for Motech. "That would be a big plus for our industry, especially if Hillary should sweep the houses (Congress)." Motech gets 30 percent of its revenues indirectly from the United States.
Car exporters in Mexico, on the other hand, could be hit by a Trump win, said Hisashi Iwama, fund manager at Asset Management One in Tokyo. Japanese firms with production facilities in Mexico include Mazda Motor, Nissan Motor and Calsonic Kansei.
However, a Trump presidency could be good news for defence companies in Asia, given his desire to reposition America's military alliances, according to Nomura analysts.
"Rising risks of confrontation in the region reinforce our view that regional military tensions and defence budgets will keep rising," Nomura said in a research note. Their picks include Australian firm Austal, China Shipbuilding, AVIC Aircraft, AviChina, Bharat Electronics and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.
Asia's corporates have the least amount of dollar-denominated debt among the three emerging market regions, rendering them less vulnerable to a rising dollar.
Still, analysts at Societe Generale reckon MSCI Asia's outperformance this year -- up 22 percent since January versus 12 percent for global equities <>MIWD00000PUS> -- should end.
While a Clinton win would broadly lift all Asian equity markets, Societe Generale recommends buying stocks in China and Southeast Asia initially if Trump wins, since these markets are less correlated to global market sentiment. It would sell companies exporting to the United States, particularly those in Taiwan and South Korea because of their additional links to the global smartphone supply chain.
Societe Generale's list of stocks to sell if Trump wins includes technology firms TSMC Technology, Advanced Semiconductor, Infosys, Tata Consultancy Services, Hong Kong's Li & Fung and Japan's Fuji Heavy Industries, all of which have upwards of 60 percent of their sales going to the United States.
(Additional reporting by Faith Hung in TAIPEI, Christine Kim in SEOUL, Hideyuki Sano in TOKYO.; Editing by Bill Tarrant.)