Hedge fund manager Mark Dow says all the stories you tell about the dollar are wrong:
“Stories” that drive the dollar abound. They are usually easy to explain and intuitively appealing. Most of them turn out to be wrong. Excessively low interest rates in 2003, the Fed “printing money” today, large current account deficits, increasing budget deficits, Chinese concerns, all of these are given ample airtime. In short, the core story we have been hearing is that the dollar is now suffering a hangover from the fiscal, monetary and external account binge it has been on in recent years.
He goes on to point out how none of these stories adds up to much:
First, dollar weakness has not been as dramatic as the story that has accompanied it. The only big decline came in 2007 (red arrow in the chart below) when the world was in massive risk seeking mode, loading up on carry, reaching for yield, constructing CDOs and CDO-squareds, and using the dollar as a funding currency. Much of this decline was unwound over the past year as the world began to deleverage. In fact, the dollar is right about at the same level as it was when Lehman went bankrupt.
Second, much of the story centres on the Fed’s expansion of base money. This is wrong on many counts. To begin with, the Fed is not printing as much as you might be led to think from listening to financial commentators on TV. Base money (here) has been flat lining since early this year (total liabilities are in the leftmost column). Moreover, the money multiplier has continued to decline, as credit is destroyed and the private sector delevers. (I think many commentators end up confusing base money with the broader money supply, but there is no need to get into this now). In addition, when the expansion of base money was truly rapid, from September to December of last year, the dollar was getting stronger. Why? Because that’s when the demand for dollars was strongest. Memories of Econ 101 and quotes from Milton Friedman have encouraged an excessive focus on the supply of money, when the real driver has been the sharp changes in demand. As funding pressures in the financial system eased, the dollar started to decline again. It is not a coincidence that the DXY (dollar index) made a high in early March when the S&P made its lows. Lastly, there is an article in this week’s Economist, pointing out how the ECB has been as expansionary as the Fed, but have been lower profile about it. But I haven’t heard any talk about the debasing of the Euro. In sum, sexy though the story might be, I don’t think the “Fed-is-printing-money-like-Zimbabwe” theme is really driving anything but the psycology of a few.
So, then, what’s the real reason to fear a dollar decline? It’s that governments around the world are more stable and transparent than they used to be, meaning more currencies are worth “holding in the mattress.” It still is, for the most part, that no matter where you are, it makes sense to hold some US Dollars as a reliable store of value. But maybe now you’ll carry some Brazilian Real or Singapore Dollars. Basically, the real issue is current and growing Dollar competition, a trend that doesn’t look likely to abate.
Granted, this doesn’t absolve US policymakers in the slightest, as they’ve given investors all kinds of reasons to look for alternatives. A failure to control the fiscal situation, as well as the politicization of debt and lending come to mind.
Further thoughts: This idea that we’ve become addicted to our status of having the reserve currency has been discussed a lot. What’s not frequently discussed is the extent to which is this case. How much profit do we derive from the each year in the form of cheaper funding costs, and whatnot. Are we more like AIG, which was wholly dependant on its AAA status, or more like Berkshire Hathaway, which can take a ratings hit and still keep chugging?
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