The story is once again trade
As news that a deal has been made
Twixt Mex and DC
Helped traders agree
The dollar would slowly degrade
Right now, there are two essential stories that the market is following; the Fed and US trade negotiations. While Friday’s news was all about the Fed (with a small dose of PBOC), yesterday we turned back to trade as the key market driver. The announcement that a tentative agreement had been reached between the US and Mexico regarding NAFTA negotiations was hailed in, most quarters, as a positive event. It is beyond the scope of this discussion to opine on the merits of the actual negotiation, only on its market impact. And that was unambiguous. Equity markets rallied everywhere while the dollar continued its recent decline. In fact, the dollar has now fallen for seven of the past eight sessions and is trading back at levels not seen in four weeks. So much for my thesis that continued tighter policy by the Fed would support the buck.
But I think it is worth examining why things are moving the way they are, and more importantly, if they are likely to continue the recent trend, or more likely to revert to the longer run story.
Earlier this year, as the narrative evolved from synchronous global growth to the US leading the way and policy divergence, buying dollars became a favored trade, especially in the hedge fund community. In fact, it grew to be so favored that positioning, at least based on CFTC figures, showed that it was near record levels. And while the dollar continued to rally right up until early last week, everybody carrying that position was happy. This was not only because their view was correct, but also because the current interest rate market paid them to maintain the position, a true win-win situation.
In the meantime, another situation was playing out at the same time; the increasingly bombastic trade rhetoric, notably between the US and China, but also between the US and Mexico, Canada and Europe. With the imposition of tariffs on $50 billion of Chinese imports by the US, and the reciprocal tariffs by China, the situation was seen as quite precarious. While there was a mild reprieve when the US delayed imposing tariffs on imported European autos last month, a key issue had continued to be the ongoing NAFTA renegotiations. These stories, when highlighted in the press, typically led to risk-off market reactions, one of which included further USD strength.
So between the two stories, higher US rates and increasing risk on the trade front, there were two good reasons to remain long dollars. However, one of the oft-mentioned consequences of the stronger dollar has been the pressure it applies to EMG economies that were heavy dollar borrowers over the past ten years. Suddenly, their prospects dimmed greatly because they felt the double whammy of less inward investment (as USD investments became more attractive due to higher US rates) and a weaker currency eating up a greater proportion of local currency revenues needed to repay dollar debt and its interest. This led to increasing angst over the Fed’s stated views that gradual rate hikes were appropriate regardless of the international repercussions. This also led to significant underperformance by EMG equity markets as well as their currencies, forced the hands of several EMG central banks to raise rates to protect their currencies, and completely decimated a few places, notably Argentina and Turkey.
But that all started to change in earnest last Friday. While the dollar had been retracing some of its recent gains prior to the Jackson Hole meeting, when Chairman Powell hinted that he saw no reason that inflation would continue much beyond the Fed’s target level (although without the benefit of a rationale for that view), the market interpreted that as the Fed ‘s rate hiking trajectory would be shallower than previously thought, and that four rate hikes this year was no longer a given. In fact there are those who now believe that September may be the last rate hike for several quarters (I am not in the group!) Now adding to that the positive news regarding trade with Mexico, with the implication that there is an opportunity to avoid a truly damaging trade war, all of those long dollar positions are feeling far less confident and slowly unwinding. And my sense is that will continue for a bit longer, continuing to add pressure to the dollar. What is interesting to me is that the euro, for example, has retraced back above 1.17 so quickly (remember, it was trading at 1.13 just two weeks ago) and it is not clear that many positions have been cleared out. That implies that we could see further dollar weakness ahead as long as there is no other risk-off catalyst that arises.
The thing is, I don’t think this has changed the long run picture for the dollar, which I think will continue to outperform over time, as while the Fed may slow its trajectory, it is not stopping any time soon. And the reality is that the ECB is still well over a year away from raising rates, with Japan further behind than that. Meanwhile, the PBOC is actively easing as the Chinese economy continues to slow. In the end, the dollar remains the best bet in the medium term. But in the short run, I think the euro could well trade toward 1.19 before stalling, with other currencies moving a similar amount.
As to today’s session, there has been a decided lack of data from either Asia or Europe, and nothing really on the cards for the US. We remain in a lackluster holiday week, as US trading desks remain lightly staffed ahead of the Labor Day holiday next Monday. So to me, momentum is pointing to continued dollar weakness for now, and I expect that is what we will see for the rest of the week.
And what has happened as that angst has grown, and fears of a repeat of the EMG crisis of 1998-9 were raised?