Beggar Thy Neighbor

A story that’s making the rounds
Although, it, so far, lacks real grounds
Is that the US
Might try to depress
The dollar ‘gainst euros and pounds

If so, that’s incredible news
And dollar bulls need change their views
But beggar thy neighbor
Does naught but belabor
The trade war, instead, it, defuse

The most interesting story that has started to gain traction is the idea that the Trump administration is considering direct intervention in the FX markets. While most pundits and investors focus on the Fed and how its monetary policy impacts the value of the dollar (which is completely appropriate), the legal framework in the US is that the Treasury is the department that has oversight of the currency. This means that dollar policy, such as it is beyond benign neglect, is formulated by the Secretary of the Treasury, not the FOMC. This is why the Treasury produces the report about other countries and currency manipulation every six months. Also, this is not a new situation, it has been the case since the abandonment of the Bretton Woods Agreement in 1971.

Since the Clinton Administration, the US policy has been a ‘strong dollar is in the US best interest’. This was made clear by then Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and has been an accepted part of the monetary framework ever since. The issue with a strong dollar, of course, is that it can be an impediment for US exporters as their goods and services may become uncompetitively priced. Now, during the time when the US’s large trade deficits were not seen as problematic, the strong dollar was not seen as an issue. Clearly, earnings results from multinational corporations were impacted, but the government was not running policy with that as a priority. However, the current administration is far more mercantilist than the previous three or four, and as we have seen from the President’s Twitter feed, dollar strength has moved up the list of priorities.

It is this set of circumstances that has analysts and economists pondering the idea that the Treasury may direct the Fed to intervene directly in the FX market, selling dollars. History has shown that when a country intervenes by itself in the FX market, whether to prevent strength or weakness, it has generally been a failure. The only times when intervention has worked has been when there has been a general agreement amongst a large group of nations that a currency is either too strong or too weak and that intervention is appropriate. The best known examples are the Plaza Accord and the Louvre Accord from the mid-1980’s, where the G7 first agreed that the dollar was overvalued, then that it had reached an appropriate level. The initial announcement alone was able to drive the dollar lower by upwards of 10%, and the active intervention was worth another 5%. The result was a longer term weakening of nearly 40% before it was halted by the Louvre Accord. But other than those situations, for the large freely floating currencies, intervention has been effective at slowing a trend, but not reversing one. And the current dollar trend remains higher.

If the US does decide to intervene directly, this will have an enormous short-term impact on the FX market (and probably all markets) as it represents a significant policy reversal. However, in the end, macroeconomic fundamentals and relative monetary policy stances are still going to drive the value of every currency. With that in mind, it could be a long time before those influences become dominant again. Of course, the other thing is that the history of beggar-thy-neighbor FX policy is one of abject failure, with all nations seeking the same advantage, and none receiving any. Certainly, this is something to keep on your radar.

Away from that story, the dollar is actually stronger this morning, with the euro having breached 1.12, the pound tumbling toward 1.24 and most currencies, both G10 and EMG on the back foot. In fact, this is the problem for the Trump administration on this front, the growth situation elsewhere in the world continues to deteriorate more rapidly than in the US. Not only did Friday’s employment data help support the dollar, but this morning we saw very weak UK and Italian Retail Sales data to add to the economic malaise in those areas. In fact, economists are now forecasting negative GDP growth in the UK for Q2, and markets are pricing in a 25bp rate cut by the BOE before the end of the year. Meanwhile, in the Eurozone, all the talk is about how quickly the ECB is going to restart QE, with new estimates it could happen as soon as September with amounts up to €40 billion per month. While that seems to be a remarkably quick reversal (remember, they just ended QE six months ago), with the prospect of an ECB President Lagarde, who has lauded QE as an excellent policy tool, it cannot be ruled out.

Pivoting to the trade story, the latest news is that senior officials will be speaking by phone this week and the chances of a meeting, probably in Beijing in the next few weeks are rising. The problem is that there are still fundamental differences in world views and unless one side caves, which seems unlikely right now, I don’t see a short-term resolution. What is more remarkable is the fact that the lack of any discernible progress on trade is no longer seen as an issue by any markets. Or at least not a major one. While equity markets have softened over the past two sessions, the declines have been muted and, at least in the US, indices remain near record highs. Bond yields have risen a bit, implying the worst of the fear has passed, although in fairness, they remain incredibly low. But most importantly, the dialog has moved on, with trade no longer seen as the key fundamental factor it appeared to be just two months ago.

Turning to this morning’s news, there is only one data point, JOLT’s Job Openings (exp 7.47M) but of much more importance we hear from Chairman Powell at 8:45 this morning, followed by Bullard, Bostic and Quarles later in the day. Powell begins his testimony to Congress tomorrow morning, but everyone will be listening carefully to see if he is going to try to walk back expectations for the July rate cut that is fully priced into the market. My money is on confirming the cut on the basis of continued low inflation readings. However, given that is the market expectation, there is no reason to believe the dollar will suffer on the news, unless he is hyper dovish. So, the current strong stance of the buck seems likely to continue for the rest of the day.

Good luck
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