Sand on the Beach

The central bank known as the Fed
Injected more funds, it is said
Than sand on the beach
While they did beseech
The banks, all that money to spread

But lately the numbers have shown
Liquidity, less, they condone
Thus traders have bid
For dollars, not quid
Nor euros in every time zone

A funny thing seems to be happening in markets lately, which first became evident when the dollar decoupled from equity markets a few days ago. It seemed odd that the dollar managed to rally despite continued strength in equity markets as the traditional risk-on stance was buy stocks, sell bonds, dollars and the yen. But lately, we are seeing stock prices continue higher, albeit with a bit tougher sledding, while the dollar has seemingly forged a bottom, at least on the charts.

The first lesson from this is that markets are remarkably capable at sussing out changes in underlying fundamentals, certainly far more capable than individuals. But of far more importance, at least with respect to understanding what is happening in the FX market, is that dollar liquidity, something the Fed has been proffering by the trillion over the past three months, is starting to, ever so slightly, tighten. This is evident in the fact that the Fed’s balance sheet actually shrunk this week, to “only” $7.14 trillion from last week’s $7.22 trillion. While this represents just a 1% shrinkage, and seemingly wouldn’t have that big an impact, it is actually quite a major change in the market.

Think back to the period in March when the worst seemed upon us, equity markets were bottoming, and central banks were panicking. The dollar was exploding higher at that time as both companies and countries around the world suddenly found their revenue streams drying up and their ability to service and repay their trillions of dollars of outstanding debt severely impaired. That was the genesis of the Fed’s dollar swap lines to other central banks, as Chairman Jay wanted to insure that other countries would have temporary access to those needed dollars. At that time, we also saw the basis swap bottom out, as borrowing dollars became prohibitively expensive, and in the end, many institutions decided to simply buy dollars on the foreign exchange markets as a means of securing their payments.

However, once those swap lines were in place, and the Fed announced all their programs and started growing the balance sheet by $75 billion/day, those apocalyptic fears ebbed, investors decided the end was not nigh and took those funds and bought stocks. This explains the massive rebound in the equity markets, as well as the dollar’s weakness that has been evident since late March. In fact, the dollar peaked and the stock market bottomed on the same day!

But as the recovery starts to gather some steam, with recent data showing that while things are still awful, they are not as bad as they were in April or early May, the Fed is reducing the frequency of their dollar swap operations to three times per week, rather than daily. They have reduced their QE purchases to less than $4 billion/day, and essentially, they are mopping up some of that excess liquidity. FX markets have figured this out, which is why the dollar has been pretty steadily strengthening for the past seven sessions. As long as the Fed continues down this path, I think we can expect the dollar to continue to perform.

And this is true regardless of what other central banks or nations do. For example, yesterday’s BOE action, increasing QE by £100 billion, was widely expected, but interestingly, is likely to be the last of their moves. First, it was not a unanimous vote as Chief Economist, Andy Haldane, voted for no change. The other thing is that expectations for future government Gilt issuance hover in the £70 billion range, which means that the BOE will have successfully monetized the entire amount of government issuance necessary to address the Covid crash. But regardless of whether this appears GBP bullish, it is dwarfed by the Fed activities. Positive Brexit news could not support the pound, and now it is starting to pick up steam to the downside. As I type, it is lower by 0.3% on the day which follows yesterday’s greater than 1% decline and takes the move since its recent peak to more than 3.4%.

What about the euro, you may ask? Well, it too has been suffering as not only is the Fed beginning to withdraw some USD liquidity, but the ECB, via yesterday’s TLTRO loans has injected yet another €1.3 trillion into the market. While the single currency is essentially unchanged today, it is down 2.0% from its peak on the 10th of June. And this pattern has repeated itself across all currencies, both G10 and EMG. Except, of course, for the yen, which has rallied a bit more than 1% since that same day.

Of course, in the emerging markets, the movement has been a bit more exciting as MXN has fallen more than 5.25% since that day and BRL nearly 10%. But the point is, this pattern is unlikely to stop until the Fed stops withdrawing liquidity from the markets. Since they clearly take their cues from the equity markets, as long as stocks continue to rally, so will the dollar right now. Of course, if stocks turn tail, the dollar is likely to rally even harder right up until the Fed blinks and starts to turn on the taps again. But for now, this is a dollar story, and one where central bank activity is the primary driver.

I apologize for the rather long-winded start but given the lack of interesting idiosyncratic stories in the market today, I thought it was a good time for the analysis. Turning to today’s session, FX market movement has been generally quite muted with, if anything, a bias for modest dollar strength. In fact, across both blocs, no currency has moved more than 0.5%, a clear indication of a lack of new drivers. The liquidity story is a background feature, not headline news…at least not yet.

Other markets, too, have been quiet, with equity markets around the world very slightly firmer, bond markets very modestly softer (higher yields) and commodity markets generally in decent shape. On the data front, the only noteworthy release was UK Retail Sales, which rebounded 10.2% in May but were still lower by 9.8% Y/Y. This is the exact pattern we have seen in virtually every data point this month. As it happens, there are no US data points today, but we do hear from four Fed speakers, Rosengren, Quarles, Mester and the Chairman. However, they have not changed their tune since the meeting last week, and certainly there has been no data or other news which would have given them an impetus to do so.

The final interesting story is that China has apparently recommitted to honoring the phase one trade deal which means they will be buying a lot of soybeans pretty soon. The thing is, I doubt it is because of the trade deal as much as it is a comment on their harvest and the fact they need them. But the markets have largely ignored the story. In the end, at this point, all things continue to lead to a stronger dollar, so hedgers, take note.

Good luck, good weekend and stay safe