Global USD funding shortfall pressures becoming more acute
July 8, 2019
Even before Friday’s better than expected jobs data, dollar bears had reason to be nervous. Despite the massive decline in interest rate expectations, doubts over the Fed’s independence, the implementation of a functional alternative global payments system (circumventing the USD) and rising twin deficits the dollar remains surprisingly well bid and within 2% of the highs of the year. Even President Trump’s threat to engage the US in the same currency manipulation that he accuses other countries had virtually no adverse impact on the price of the dollar. Occasionally, what doesn’t happen in the markets is as telling as what does happen. This is one of those times and a sure sign that the setup for the dollar is now skewed asymmetrically to the upside.
We’ve written previously about the growing dollar shortage as a result of a smaller Fed balance sheet and declining international trade volumes, making it more difficult (and expensive) for leveraged corporate and sovereign entities to access adequate funding. The potential impact on financial markets worldwide continues to be largely both misunderstood and underappreciated. A strong dollar, driven by increasing scarcity, risks creating its own negative feedback loop, tightening financial conditions and slamming the brakes on a global economy that is already decelerating. It’s the ultimate pain trade, and the odds of it playing out that way are rising.
Look no further than the news out of Europe last week for evidence that the liquidity problem is becoming more acute. Negative interest rates have already impaired lending and crippled the banking system, but the new head of the European Central Bank somehow thinks that policy has been a success. See https://on.wsj.com/2KWOg12. What? With inflation expectations literally collapsing, under LaGarde’s leadership, the ECB will likely cut rates even further, driving the banks into the ground as access to funding becomes ever more problematic. Deutsche Bank is the first to be forced into a massive restructuring but it won’t be the last. See https://reut.rs/2YEjI7N. As the old expression says, there’s never just one cockroach.
The resilience of the USD on the FX markets is a sign that investors are in the process of discovering that the central banks may not be able to easily solve the problems resulting from the dollar funding shortfall. The upside trade is clearly the path of least resistance. Last month’s pullback in the dollar index (DXY) held at 96.00, roughly the same level it finished 2018. This becomes major support and a point for long positions to now lean against.
We’ve been bullish on the dollar and bonds for months. (See The Dollar and Deflation, April 29) Bonds have worked out, and have much more to go. While the FX component of that trade has been dead money so far, it feels like the dollar is getting ready to spring back to life.
Friday’s better than expected number for first quarter GDP may be dominating the headlines but it’s the report on Personal Consumption Expenditures that is driving the market reaction. Prices paid by consumers for goods and services, excluding volatile food and energy components, fell sharply in the first three months of the year, extending a decline that began at this time last year (see chart below.) The big drop in US bond yields on the week despite otherwise good news for new home sales, durable goods orders and growth, in general, is a sign that global deflationary forces are gaining an upper hand.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In theory, robust growth, rising wages, and full employment create greater aggregate demand that leads to higher prices and higher inflation. Ever since the Fed began raising rates in 2015, tighter monetary policy has been predicated on this basic economic assumption.
The disconnect isn’t limited to the US. Some foreign central banks are beginning to panic as inflation fails to respond to years of stimulative policy. This past week Japan and Sweden joined a growing list of countries putting off any chance of rate hikes in 2019. See here: https://reut.rs/2GI0gjI and https://reut.rs/2IUj6pv . The problem is that like Europe and Switzerland, they too have already imposed negative interest rates and are running out of options to kickstart growth.
Credit to the Fed for pursuing a course of policy normalization over the past few years. They planned ahead. Part of the rationale for raising rates was to make room for rate cuts in the event of a slowdown. While this gives the US a distinct economic advantage on the world stage it doesn’t necessarily mean it will produce a happy ending.
As I mentioned in (See “Good news, bad news“) the downside in this scenario of divergent global growth is that it will drive the dollar higher against the world’s other currencies. In fact, it has already begun. While the equity markets are still celebrating a good Q1 earnings season, the risk going forward now shifts to the negative impact a stronger dollar will have on the bottom line as it makes American exports less competitive. It also starts to turn the screws on entities that leveraged cheap dollars at low rates during a decade of Fed largess. In my opinion, the aggregate short exposure to the USD is grossly underestimated.
The most efficient way to express the view of intensifying deflationary pressure is to own both the dollar and treasuries. The 2-year sector is especially attractive as a play on possible rate cuts and as the flattening trend in the yield curve of the last couple of years begins to reverse (see chart below).
In 2019 the major central banks have been focused on reflating markets by either pausing or reversing plans for policy normalization (higher rates) that hit many markets hard in 2018. Despite ongoing fears of slowing global growth, equities and commodities have so far responded positively to the prospect of easier rates and more plentiful liquidity.
But the one thing that could ruin the party is the strength of the dollar. In my opinion the rising USD was an underappreciated factor that squeezed many regions hard last year, especially emerging economies with current account deficits. Many of these entities had borrowed heavily cheap dollars at low rates under the Fed’s QE program after the 2008 recession, leaving their fiscal position vulnerable as the dollar rose. Not only does it make debt repayment and refinancing more expensive, it also tends to pressure commodity prices that these countries often rely on for exports, creating an unenviable situation where the things they are short (dollar debt) go up and the things they are long (raw materials) go down. And as 2018 proved, because global markets are more interconnected than ever, it wasn’t long before problems in the emerging markets became a problem for the developed markets.
Normally, you would expect that the dovish shift at the Fed this year would undermine the dollar. I certainly did. As it became more apparent that the highs were in for interest rates in early Q4 last year, I assumed the same for the dollar. It was a perfectly logical conclusion given that major currencies often track the path of underlying interest rates. Wrong. Except for a few shallow dips, the dollar has been remarkably resilient. It even shrugged off the appointments of inflation doves Steve Moore and Herman Caine. In the currency world it remains the best of a bad lot and the safety and liquidity it offers in uncertain times can’t be matched. Being short hasn’t cost much money so far but the longer it remains here at the top of its range, the probability grows that the next move is higher.
The chart of the dollar index (DXY) is potentially very bullish, and a break above 97.75 would signal the beginning of a (perhaps significant) leg up. This would unleash a deflationary impulse, and much like in 2018 leave stocks and commodities vulnerable. The world needs a weaker dollar to keep the 2019 bull reflation trade going. But it may not get it.