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Currencies

Euro suffers worst month against the pound since financial crisis

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Banks

RBS falls 2% after failing BoE stress test

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Currencies

China capital curbs reflect buyer’s remorse over market reforms

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Categorized | Currencies

World gears up for a surge in US dollar


Posted on July 31, 2015

©Bloomberg

As a symbol of how the US punches above its weight, nothing beats the pre-eminence of its currency. The US may account for just a fifth of global gross domestic product, but dollar assets make up three times as great a proportion of global reserves. Most commodity trading uses the greenback as the medium of account.

This influence is telling. A working paper from the Bank of International Settlements found almost $8tn of dollar credit issued to non US borrowers. More recently the IMF pointed out how past episodes of dollar strength have coincided with a rash of emerging market crises. Now that the greenback is surging again — the dollar index is up 20 per cent since last autumn — the implications are moving into focus.

    First, some perspective is in order. Although the dollar index rose from 80 in October to 100 in March, such price action is run-of-the-mill when examined over a longer period. Between 1981 and 1985, the same index soared from 90 to 160, before a co-ordinated international effort pushed it all the way back within three years.

    Dissecting the dollar is something of an art; a bet on its strength can reflect confidence in the US, or darkening clouds elsewhere and a rush to safe assets. The same IMF paper has shown that rising US rates are beneficial when they reflect optimism about growth, but not if driven by tighter money. On many occasions dollar strength has coincided with fears about growth; last autumn, for example, a spell of global deflation may have helped propel the dollar on its recent run. Of late, attention has focused more closely upon how well the US is doing.

    Indeed, it is striking how US monetary policy pays little direct attention to the dollar’s globe-trotting role. Peruse Federal Reserve statements, or recent comments by its chair Janet Yellen, and you will struggle to find much reference to the world beyond US borders. Ms Yellen is focused on the data, but the data in question is all domestic: unemployment, inflation and GDP. The global economy only matters insofar as it might impact upon the US. This week GDP revisions strengthened the chance of a rise in the rate some time before Christmas.

    One might expect the Fed to worry more about the strength of its currency, particularly given evidence it has hit the profits of US foreign subsidiaries. But the US is a fundamentally closed economy where domestic demand conditions outweigh those from overseas. Instead, if anyone is worried about the effect of a strong dollar, it is the IMF, which recently warned of “significant and abrupt rebalancing of international portfolios” should the Fed raise rates. A further reason for the dollar’s strength is confirmation of a lack of credible alternatives. Those Cassandras fretting about how monetary ease damages the dollar’s reserve currency status fail to appreciate how this is built not on its strength but its depth. Dollar assets are pervasive and easily sold.

    China’s efforts to prop up its stock market — including trading suspensions and printing renminbi to chase a market level — shows how far it has to go. Nor can the euro mount a challenge when the ECB appears politically hampered from dispensing cash in a crisis.

    In the words of an influential monetary thinker, “never reason from a price change”. What matters is not a currency’s price, but the forces driving it. At present, the dollar is strong because the US is too. Notwithstanding the IMF’s concern, Ms Yellen’s disregard for conditions outside of the US is unlikely to budge. Nor should it. The next rise in US rates will be the most telegraphed in the Fed’s history. There will be no excuse for a tantrum.