Sunday, September 21, 2008

Wither Dollar

Up until now, the dollar, in defiance of all expectations, has been strengthening against most world currencies. Even commodity prices had reversed their bullish trend. Maybe some of the long speculators on commodity reversed or deleveraged their positions to ride along side the US dollar reversal.

How could the dollar have risen in the face of overwhelmingly negative fundamentals? Some said the dollar had risen because Europe is following the US into recession. But, this proposition is ridiculous. No other nation has been as adversely affected by the credit crisis than America, where the mess had all began.

Some opine that Britain’s weakness is part reason for the US dollar’s strength. Yes, British economy is slowing and its property sector is facing a correction after years of bubble activity. But these are simply convenient reasons but hardly persuasive or convincing.

Deficit intact

Since 2002, the US dollar has lost more than 25% in real terms on a trade-weighted basis (or 28% in nominal terms). One would think that it would have gone some way to reduce its current account deficit, i.e. more competitive exports, lower imports, and a shift in consumer behaviour etc.

Truth is, the current account deficit has barely moved and is still at the 5% level.

According to the International Monetary Fund, a 10% depreciation in the US dollar will improve US’ current account deficit by one full percentage point.

Going by that rationale, the current account deficit should have been halved! Instead, over the period where the dollar lost 25% in real value €“ the US economy had to contend with higher oil prices, stronger competition from emerging countries and persistent war-related expenses.

(PS: A clear example of the US dollar losing 25% in real terms: a Middle East nation selling oil at US$100/b today is equivalent to them selling the oil at US$75/b back in 2002)

Noteworthy is that the US has spent the last 7 years in a silly war. China spent the last 7 years building infrastructure and planning for the Olympics.

Which country do you think frittered away resources, and which one tried to add value to her underlying economy?

The real reason

My prognosis for the US dollar strength is that it’s being engineered by major central banks with the main objective of halting the commodity price uptrend.

The stubbornly rising commodity prices was doing a lot of damage to inflationary figures and curtailing demand.

The Fed and Treasury are fully aware that higher commodity prices will not only curb demand, but will also result in higher interest rates (used to rein in rising prices for goods and services.)

But both these institutions NEED to keep interest rates low to proceed to save the financial institutions in the US.

They need to deal with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Washington Mutual, and a whole host of regional banks.

They need a flattish and low interest rate regime to resuscitate and restructure desperate mortgages. They also need more stability in property prices.

Coincidentally (and smartly enough), a stronger US dollar and the planned bailouts do the trick nicely.

The ECB seems amenable to that strategy as a weaker euro stems the drop in exports. If you were to do a survey, the majority of economists agree that the ECB will not reduce interest rates until the second half of 2009.

That’s because the underlying strength in Europe is still strong and it needs to fight inflationary pressures from the high commodity prices more than anything else.

The jobs market in Europe is also still relatively strong. That scenario does not require a weaker euro.

In contrast, the US economy, continues to worsen. This even after the Fed slashed interest rates and the massive bailout plans for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The US overnight loan rate is less than half that of the ECB €“ 225 basis points lower. The US has a US$750bil per year current account deficit and rising.

It has huge federal and state budget deficits. Americans save less and spend more than any other people on earth. The US economy has been losing ground especially on the manufacturing side to emerging nations, transferring vital industries to them.

Fed’s deteriorating state

The American banking system is under dire circumstances.

More recently, Lehman Brothers buckled under pressure and filed for bankruptcy. I’m expecting a whole bucket load of regional banks to follow suit.

The Fed has already tainted its balance sheet with US$450bil worth of default-prone mortgage-backed assets from its favoured institutions.

This junk now amounts to almost half of the Fed’s balance sheet, yes the very thing that is supposed to back the US dollar.

In the face of these fundamentals, the US dollar has paradoxically appreciated against the euro, ruble, rupee, yen, real, Singapore dollar and almost all other currencies. How can this happen?

While China has been forcing its commercial banks to hold more dollars, there has also been huge buying, by other foreign central banks, of American treasury bills.

In August, the increase in Treasury bill buying far exceeded that which is needed to offset the huge US trade deficit.

The Treasury bill binge happened right before the surge of the US dollar. Doesn’t this hint of a concerted effort by most major central bankers to cooperate with the US Treasury and Federal Reserve?

The trigger-strategy

Prior to the intervention, most major American, European and Asian institutions held short positions in the dollar.

In order to kick off the dollar intervention, they needed a substantial initial pump. The first pump will be used to massively drain dollars from the world system, in order to forcibly raise its cross-currency value, above the first big stop-loss point.

These stop-loss points are well known to the Fed’s primary dealers.

Once the value was forced to the first major stop-loss point, a massive covering of shorts positions began. It was the biggest short squeeze in history.

The short position in the dollar was so enormous up until mid-July, that after the first stop-loss point was taken down, only minimal additional effort was needed to attack the next ones.

With a little added pressure, stop loss after stop loss is demolished, causing short sellers to desperately scramble to buy the dollar to cover what appears to be an impending catastrophic losses.

At some point, the dollar gained a momentum of its own. People who were previously short, and “stopped out”, decided that the wind was blowing in favour of the dollar.

These opportunists converted their funds to go long on the dollar and short on euros, yen, and so forth.

We are in the midst of this reversal right now, after the major part of the intervention has run its course. The powers-that-be are still intervening, to some extent, but they don’t need to use as much force, and have probably unloaded a lot of the long contracts already, at either a profit, or, at worst, a very small loss.

The carry trade

US Treasury chief Henry Paulson and the rest know that the yen carry trade has been fuelling commodity price spikes (borrowing in yen on low interest rates and investing in higher yielding assets).

They are aware that once the stop-loss levels have been triggered in an “unexpected rise in US dollar”, it would result in a domino-effect of investors closing out their yen carry trade positions.

Most of the funds in the yen carry trade were long in commodities, the euro, the Australian dollar and the New Zealand dollar. All spelt losses in those bets. However, the stronger US dollar also caused some of them to remain long instead in US dollar, even after the bashing they took in previous positions.

In the middle of the week, the dollar tumbled in Asian and European trading as a knee jerk reaction to news that the US credit crunch crisis is far from over, but climbed back up.

The markets have been very much herd-like for most of these twelve months, be it in oil or other commodity prices and similarly in the reversal of the US dollar. There is comfort in flying in flocks especially when the global financial markets are so tumultuous. This is not a period which rewards contrarian views.

Even those with contrarian views would be looking for better entry levels, after taking into account market psychology and sentiment. Now investors not only have to judge based on fundamentals and capital flows but also open interest in major futures contracts on various asset classes to get a gauge.

The dollar’s fundamentals are nothing to shout about. The fall of the dollar is a rational reaction to a massively mismanaged paper currency. When currency intervention ends, people will want out of the dollar.

Printing press

Private manipulation of oil, silver or gold markets is a felony but government intervention in worldwide currency markets is perfectly legal.

The bill for the nationalisation of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae will add about US$6tril to the Federal deficit.

The US government will be forced to print from US$250bil €“ US$500bil new dollars to offset losses in the next 2-3 years.

In addition, it is likely that another US$500bil or so will need to be printed to bail out the FDIC insurance fund.

According to Nouriel Roubini, about US$1tril-US$2tril worth of “value” will have been removed from the system by those who eventually default.

Prior to the credit crisis, the Federal Reserve balance sheet amounted to about US$940bil worth of treasury bills.

This was the fundamental support for the “Federal Reserve Note” or better known as the US dollar.

That is also now lumped with about US$450bil worth of default-prone mortgage backed securities, thanks to efforts to bail out big banks from their even bigger mistakes.

This leaves the US dollar with less than US$500bil in solid support. Each additional new Treasury bill to support printing more money will tarnish the balance sheet.

Soon, global investors will start shouting that the US dollar is not backed by anything at all. If you are not going to revamp and restructure the economy and consumption patterns yourself, the rest of the world will do that for you.

Nearing the end

It’s really quite simple. There are potential trigger catalysts €“ maybe when investors start to add up the mind boggling funds required to complete the bailouts, or when fellow central bankers decide enough is enough with regard to joint intervention, or when the Fed has to cut rates, or when some critical Mid-East nation(s) decides to drop the peg to the US dollar.

Ultimately, the reserve currency status will only get you so far. Finances need to be shored up. Lehman being allowed to go into bankruptcy and Merrill Lynch giving up trying to stay afloat independently, had probably ended the US dollar uptrend.

US dollar will be on a downward pressure with the Fed having to lower rates in the months ahead, and more significantly, the imminent collapse of many more regional banks in the US now that both Paulson and the Fed’s Ben Bernanke have drawn a line on bailouts (not going to happen anymore).

Investors eager to swoop in on US dollar denominated assets may want to bear this in mind, be it stocks, bonds or property.

photo: Crystal Liu Yifei


ru40342 said...

Dear Dali,

You are absolutely correct this time. With China owing 1 trillion dollar of us economy through t-bill, no wonder those thing happened.

Friday stock market rally may favored a lot of wall street investor who long the index. However the biggest winner Friday was those who short the dollar. In one day, dollar depreciate at least 125 pips against Euro, AUS, NZD, CHF and CAD. Biggest one came from Australia dollar which recorded an amazing 407 pips!

Average return to those investor that day was 68.5%! Well i entered the market one hour before the market close and guest what i still manage to get a 30% gain.

The signal is strong and for me this is the best way of protecting our capital against those lunatics who are blowing our economy away

Charles Chong said...

i don't fully agree on your statement. Mind you that China is a big adopter of US treasury bills, trillions of them. With China holding so much of US treasury bill, they will do their best to protect the value of USD, not to mention that HKD is in fact pegged to USD. China, being one of the wealthiest nation in Asia currently, will not allow their wealth to be swept away over night.

easystar said...

There is a simpler explanation to USD Strength - selling of emerging market asset and ship the money back home in the form of dollars.

As the stock market recover, fund flow the other way and the dollar is weakening again (together with JPY).

This currency thing is about who is the most screwed. US is screwed, yes. Japan got a -4% annualised GDP growth, and with the chaos in Malaysia, it is difficult to say who is more screwed. For sure, the US government isn't going bust anytime soon.

lsb said...

: What a contrast to the remedy for Asians in 1997, and confirms the perceptions that they did it purposely to pick up assets on the cheap, in Korea and elsewhere.

Tanah Hartah is a vehicle they are considering in whatever sophisticated name it may be established.
Selfishness, I wish the contagion continues as there is great probability to repeat post 1998 earnings., but for empathy no.

Printing USD without backing, counterfeiting again.

lsb said...

Central banks will support the USD, for the time being as their holdings is primarily in USD. No country wanted to be poor overnight by the collapsed of the USD. Take ourselves and Sing, how much the 2 of us have in USD.

clk said...

all that are holding up the US$ at this moment is "hope" that it can be used to buy something in the future, the primary purpose of money.

US the world's largest creditor and the rest of the world as the largest collective debtor to the US now has to only decide whether we should let the giant fall or not and die together with it.

Like I always tell people, if you want borrow, make sure you borrow big from any lender, they won't let you fall or call on you if you borrow big enough!

Ivan said...

Dear dali,

I read from WSJ.
US Treasury will inject US200b to FED and hence FED has able to help the market and NO NEED to print the US dollar.

Will the US 200b now become liabilities for FED?
FED no need pay interest to US Treasury?

solomon said...

I do have the feel that the recent USD strengths and weaknesses are engineered by Central Bankers. Not quite sure whether it is for the bailouts, but they are tale signs about it, like dali's said.

How about reaffirming and applying the Brenton Wood II (renminbi - dollar peg) into more international currencies?

Having saying that, it reaffirmed my believe that the next target will shift to currencies speculation. The speculators(wolves) will camouflage behind the Central Bankers (tigers), you could hardly differentiate the currencies movements by who then.

My opinion is ringgit should consider the fixed peg to USD now. I am sure most of the local businesses will welcome this. At least, it have remove some business uncertainties in forex movement.

Tony said...

Can you explain what Muhyuddin Yassin meant when he said pegging the Ringgit would cushion off the impact of the weakening USD against other currencies? First the USD was not weakening but strengthening. Secondly what happens should the USD fall say 30%. RGT would be 3 to the SGD, 8 to the Pound, 7 to the Euro?

Andrew Chua said...

Crystal Liu really pretty... especially in Return of the Condor Heroes...

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