This morning the currency war
Has faded as traders look for
The opportune place
More profits to chase
Seems shorting of bonds is in store
For the past five days, the dollar has been the primary topic of conversation among market participants as the reaction to Treasury Secretary Mnuchin’s comments about a weak dollar started a series of verbal fisticuffs over what is and isn’t appropriate for policymakers to discuss. Certainly, given the struggles both the BOJ and ECB have had regarding creating inflation, the last thing they wanted was strength in their currencies. Of course, one could rightfully say that the Fed is not keen on a strong dollar given their own desire to raise inflation. And in the end, despite all the wailing and gnashing of teeth, the dollar has declined by about 1% during this kerfuffle, not nearly enough to change anything in a meaningful manner. And that includes this morning, where the dollar has softened a bit vs. most of its counterparts. For example, after GDP data showed that the Eurozone grew 2.6% Y/Y in Q4, faster than the US Y/Y rate of 2.3%, the euro has rallied about 0.4%. Similarly, strong Japanese employment and spending data, indicating that growth there continues to pick up, helped the yen to a 0.3% rally vs. the dollar. And while both of these currencies are edging back toward recent highs, in truth, neither one has made new ground today.
It appears there are other things on traders’ minds now. In fact, the subject with the most ink spilled today has been the Treasury market, where yesterday’s sharp decline in prices pushed the 10-year yield above 2.70% for the first time since April. This has elevated the question of whether we are entering a bear market in bonds to a new level. You may have seen a number of comments recently from big name bond gurus (Jeffrey Gundlach and Bill Gross to name two) about how the bond market is about to embark on a major sell-off as growth in the US expands and inflation is sure to follow. Adding to their view is the Fed’s process of reducing the balance sheet, which is further removing demand from the Treasury market just as the Treasury will need to borrow more (aka issue more bonds) to fund the increasing budget deficit. So, reduced demand by the key, price-insensitive buyer and increased supply certainly point in that direction. And I strongly agree with this thesis as, if you recall, I forecast 4.0% 10-year yields by year-end. The question here is how will this impact the dollar?
Traditionally, the dollar has benefitted when the spread between US and foreign interest rates widened, and that is clearly what we are seeing. For example, during the past year, the spread between 2-year Treasury notes and 2-year German Bunds has widened by 75bps and is now sitting at 270bps (German 2-year yields remain in negative territory, currently yielding -0.55%). But despite this interest rate move in favor of dollars, the dollar has been under pressure the entire time falling ~14%. And that has been one of the mysteries of the markets in this cycle. Historical patterns do not seem to offer meaningful information on current trading outcomes. Which means there are other drivers.
Clearly, the narrative has been at odds with the current interest rate differential as it continues to focus on expectations for how this spread will narrow over time. The problem I have with that is the narrative timeline that is in focus seems far longer than practical. Are investors really willing to leave 250+bps on the table on the basis of the idea that at some point Eurozone or Japanese interest rates are going to rise faster than US rates? That would be a hard argument to support to an investment committee. But in the short run, it appears to be the situation. There is no question that momentum in the market remains for the dollar to fall further. It also seems highly likely that the interest rate differential is going to continue to widen in the US favor over the rest of this year so this conundrum may not be resolved soon.
One thing that has remained true throughout the various economic cycles in history is that when a country has a combination of tight monetary and loose fiscal policy it’s currency has strengthened while the opposite is also true, loose monetary and tight fiscal policy have tended to undermine that currency. (The data on combinations of tight and tight or loose and loose are less conclusive). Well, I don’t know about you, but it certainly looks to my eye like the US is running relatively tight monetary policy (Fed raising rates and reducing its balance sheet) and loose fiscal policy (huge tax cuts and increased deficit spending) and that continues to point to a rebound in the dollar. And despite the mildly disappointing Core PCE data yesterday (unchanged at 1.5% instead of the tick higher to 1.6% anticipated), I continue to look for the Fed to feel pressure to tighten policy faster than markets are currently pricing which will only exacerbate the current rate dynamics in the dollar’s favor, just not today.
As we look forward to today’s session, the only data of note is the Consumer Confidence Index (exp 123.4) although that generally has little impact on FX markets. Tomorrow is when we start to see more critical things with both ADP employment and the FOMC statement. As such, a quick scan of other markets shows that yesterday’s red numbers across equity markets here have continued overnight with Asia selling off sharply and Europe, despite solid data, also under water. US equity futures are pointing to a lower opening as well. Are we beginning to see a risk-off scenario develop? It will take more than a one-day decline in stocks for that to be the case, but if that story develops some momentum, perhaps the long awaited correction will come. However, until then, despite my long term views on the dollar regaining its footing, it appears that it will remain under pressure for now.