A Terrible Day

The UK’s Prime Minister May
Last night had a terrible day
Her plans for a deal
Were seen as unreal
As hawks in the EU held sway

But elsewhere the market’s embraced
The concept that fear was misplaced
Instead, stocks they’re buying
And so, fortifying
The idea, for risk, they have taste

Arguably, the key headline this morning was the extremely poor reception British PM May received from her 27 dinner companions at the EU dinner last night. She continues to proffer the so-called Chequers deal (named for the PM’s summer residence where the deal was agreed amongst Tory members several weeks ago), which essentially says the UK will toe the EU line when it comes to manufactured and agricultural goods, but wants a free hand in services and immigration. French President Macron was quick to dismiss the notion as he remains adamant that leaving the EU should be seen as a disaster, lest any other nations (Italy are you watching?) consider the idea. At any rate, while the pound had been rallying for the past week, reaching its highest level since early July, that all came a cropper last night. The growing hope that a Brexit deal would be found has been shattered, at least for now, and it should be no surprise that the pound has suffered for it. This morning, it is leading the way lower, having fallen 0.6% from yesterday’s closing levels.

However, while the dollar is modestly firmer this morning across the board, my strong dollar thesis is being severely tested of late. We have seen the dollar fall broadly all week despite the resumption of the march higher in US yields. Or is it because of that movement that the dollar is falling? Let’s consider the alternatives.

Several months ago I wrote about the conflicting cyclical and structural aspects of the market that were impacting the dollar’s value. The cyclical factors were US growth outpacing the rest of the world and the Fed tightening monetary policy faster than any other central bank. This combination led to higher US rates and a better investment environment in the US than elsewhere, and consequently, an increase in dollar buying for global investors to take advantage of the opportunities. Thus higher short-term interest rates led to a higher US dollar, along with a flatter yield curve.

On the other hand, the structural questions that hang over the US economy consist of the impact of late cycle fiscal stimulus in the form of both tax cuts and increased spending. The fact that this was occurring at the same time the Fed was reducing the size of its balance sheet meant that at some point, it seemed likely that increased Treasury supply would find decreased demand. The growing budget and current account deficits would in turn pressure the dollar lower while the excess Treasury supply would push long-term yields higher ending up with a weaker dollar and a steeper yield curve.

Starting in April, it became clear that the cyclical story was the primary market driver, with strong US growth pushing up short-term rates as well as US corporate earnings. Investors flocked to the US to take advantage with the dollar rallying sharply while US equity markets significantly outperformed their foreign counterparts. This was especially notable in the EMG space, where a decade of QE had forced funds to the highest yielding assets they could find, which happened to be those EMG markets. But now that there was an alternative, those funds were quick to return to the US, driving EMG equity markets lower and hammering those currencies as well. There was also a great deal of concern that if the divergence in markets continued, it could result in much more significant losses elsewhere that would eventually come back to haunt US markets.

But a funny thing happened last week, US CPI printed lower than expected. Now you might not think that a 0.1% miss on a number would be that important, but essentially what that signaled to markets was that the Fed would be more likely to ease back on the pace of tightening, thereby slowing the rise in the short-term interest rate structure. It also indicated that US growth may not be as robust as had been previously thought, and therefore, opportunities here, while still excellent, needed to be weighed against what was going on elsewhere in the world. At the same time, elsewhere in the world we have seen continued central bank rhetoric about removing policy accommodation, with ECB President Draghi’s press conference seen as mildly hawkish, while the BOJ seems to be in stealth taper mode. We have also seen the trade situation get pushed to the back of the collective market’s mind as the US imposed a lower tariff rate than expected on Chinese goods, and has not yet moved forward on any other tariffs.

But wait, there’s more!, after four months of selling off, EMG assets have suddenly started to look like they represent a ‘value’ play, with the first buyers tentatively dipping their toes back into those markets. And finally, remember that the speculative long dollar position has been building for months and reaching near record levels. Adding it all up leads to the following conclusion: there is room for the dollar to continue this decline in the medium term. Continued fund movement into EMG markets combined with the reduction of the long dollar positions will be more than sufficient to continue to drive the dollar lower.

That combination is what has taken place this week, and despite the break today, it seems quite viable that we will continue to see this pattern for a bit longer. In the end, I don’t think that the market will completely ignore the cyclical dollar prospects, but for now, the broad structural story is holding sway. Add to this the idea that market technicians are going to get excited about selling dollars because it has reached levels below the 50-day and 100-day moving averages, and thus is ‘breaking out lower’, and we could be in for a couple of months of dollar weakness. If this is true, while individual currencies could still underperform, like the pound if the Brexit situation collapses, it is entirely possible that Chairman Powell could find himself in the best position he could imagine, continuing to remove policy ease while the dollar falls, thus ameliorating the President’s concerns. But it’s not clear to me that is such a good thing overall. We shall see.

Good luck and good weekend