Is the dollar's seemingly relentless rise in recent years coming to an end? What are the implications not only for the greenback, but other currencies and markets around the world?
The chart below shows the U.S. dollar index over the past 40 years together with its longer term moving average, as well as 1 and 2 standard deviation bands. To some the chart may suggest that exchange rates are mean reverting; some will see a longer-term declining trend in the dollar; others will point to what may be considered an extreme valuation given that the dollar index has been around 2 standard deviations above its moving average. To us, the fact that the dollar has moved so far from its moving average, gives rise to the question whether the dollar rally may be over. Let's consider some arguments for and against 'peak dollar':
U.S. rate hikes?
It's widely anticipated that the Fed will continue to raise interest rates. So why would the dollar not rise? It turns out that we have been told for years now that the Fed will 'exit' from its extraordinarily accommodative policy. In our analysis, the U.S. dollar historically appreciates in anticipation of a hiking cycle, but not necessarily as rates actually move higher.
What about rate differentials? The European Central Bank (ECB) just lowered rates again. While all else equal, a high interest rate differential may benefit the higher yielding currency, all else is rarely equal. Betting on such rate differentials is also referred to as a 'carry trade' strategy. In our analysis, carry trade strategies tend to perform well in 'risk on' environments, i.e. in environments when equities and other 'risk assets' do well. Let's pause to reflect that the U.S. dollar historically is considered a 'safe haven' when there is a 'flight to quality.' Remember 2008, when the dollar was widely considered the 'only safe place in town'? Well, the yen substantially outperformed the greenback that year, but, yes, the dollar - and notably U.S. Treasuries - were two of the few places where investors found refuge.
But we have observed that for some time now, the U.S. dollar has tended to follow dynamics more typically associated with a high yielding currency, that is to rally in conjunction with the equity markets. This is no accident, as, on a relative basis, the U.S. dollar, has indeed become a high yielding currency versus many of its peers. The flip side of that is that we have observed the dollar often declines when equity markets plunge. This suggests that investors might want to gain some non-dollar exposure as a way to diversify their portfolio. Except they might want to hold non-dollar cash rather than equities, as international equities may also suffer when U.S. equities are under pressure.
Rates bottoming in rest of the world?
We have heard many central bankers complain that their currencies are overvalued and that rates might go lower. But last week, ECB chief Mario Draghi released what we think was a bombshell. During the Q&A of last week's press conference, he said: "From today's perspective, and taking into account the support of our measures to growth and inflation, we don't anticipate that it will be necessary to reduce rates further." (bolding added) No, he did not misspeak, as he mentioned a second time during the press conference that rates may not go down any further. There are a variety of reasons why he might indicate that rates have bottomed, including:
• Negative interest rates have been difficult to work with for some banks. Notably, Draghi pointed out that banks lose money on some loans linked to overnight lending rates that are negative. By signaling that rates may not go down any further, banks may not restrict lending based on a fear that they may face more losses as rates go deeper into negative territory.
• Draghi appears to have shifted towards a new regime in trying to jumpstart growth in the Eurozone, focusing on boosting bank profitability with another newly announced program (TLTRO II) that, in our analysis, could cut bank funding cost in half for all Eurozone banks. As such, he appears to acknowledge that weakening the euro has not been the panacea to fix the ills of the Eurozone.
• Data in the Eurozone haven't been so bad. Indeed, listening to Draghi over the past 9 months, a lot of what he looks at looks pretty decent. In fact, just about all negatives he cited at his most recent press conference were risks outside of the Eurozone (global growth) or at least partially outside the control of the ECB (low energy prices).
The conclusion we draw from this is that the bottom of the interest rate cycle may well be in for the Eurozone. Take Draghi's word for it, not ours. And we think his position creates a whole different dynamic for the U.S. dollar.
On a somewhat related note, we have been arguing for some time that interest rates in Sweden, for example, are way too low. The economy there has good growth and low unemployment; it's just that inflation is rather low. In our view, the Swedish central bank (Risksbank) has been paranoid about ever more negative rates in the Eurozone; with that risk off the table, the Riksbank may soon be courageous enough to reverse course.