The Prospects of a Weaker US Dollar Policy

Michael Lebowitz

The US economy is stronger than most other developed countries and has higher interest rates. Both are reasons that foreign investors are flocking to the dollar and adding to its recent appreciation. Assuming economic activity does not decline rapidly and interest rates do not plummet, a weaker dollar would further incentivize foreign flows into the dollar and partially or fully offset any intervention. 

More importantly, there is a global dollar shortage to consider. It has been estimated by the Bank of International Settlements (BIS) that there is $12.8 trillion in dollar-denominated liabilities owed by foreign entities. A stronger dollar causes interest and principal payments on this debt to become more onerous for the borrowers. Dollar weakness would be an opportunity for some of these borrowers to buy dollars, pay down their debts and reduce dollar risk. Again, such buying would offset the Treasury’s actions to depress the dollar.   

Instead of direct intervention in the currency markets, Trump and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin can use speeches and tweets to jawbone the dollar lower. Like direct intervention, we also think that indirect intervention via words would have a limited effect at best. 

The economic and interest rate fundamentals driving the stronger dollar may be too much for direct or indirect intervention to overcome. 

From a legal perspective intervening in the currency markets is allowed and does not require approval from Congress. Per the Wall Street Journal article, “The 1934 Gold Reserve Act gives the White House broad powers to intervene, and the Treasury maintains a fund, currently of around $95 billion, to carry out such operations.” The author states that the Treasury has not conducted any interventions since 2000. That is not entirely true as they conducted a massive amount of currency swaps with other nations during and after the financial crisis. By keeping these large market-moving trades off the currency markets, they very effectively manipulated the dollar and other currencies. 

Hounding the Fed

The President aggressively chastised Fed Chairman Powell for not cutting interest rates or ending QT as quickly as he prefers. Lowering interest rates to levels that are closer to those of other large nations would potentially weaken the dollar. The only problem is that the Fed does not appear willing to move at the President’s pace as they deem such action is not warranted. We believe the Fed is very aware that taking unjustifiable actions at the behest of the President would damage the perception of their independence and, therefore, their integrity.

To solve this problem, Trump could take the controversial and unprecedented step of firing or demoting Fed Chairman Powell.  In Powell’s place he could put someone willing to lower rates aggressively and possibly reintroduce QE. These steps might push financial asset prices higher, weaken the dollar, and provide the economic pickup Trump seeks but it is also fraught with risks. We have written two articles on the topic of the President firing the Fed Chairman as follows: Chairman Powell You’re Firedand Market Implications for Removing Fed Chair Powell.

It is not clear whether the President can get away with firing or even demoting Chairman Powell. We guess that he understands this which may explain why he has not done it already. If he cannot change Fed leadership, he can continue to pressure the Fed with Tweets, speeches, and direct meetings. We do not think this strategy can be effective unless the Fed has ample reason to cut rates. Thus far, the Fed’s mandates of “maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates” do not provide the Fed such justification.

Getting Help Abroad

One of the core topics in the U.S. – China trade talks has been the Chinese Yuan. In particular, Trump is negotiating to stop the Chinese from using their currency to promote their economic self-interests at our expense. As of writing this, the U.S. Treasury deemed China a currency manipulator. Per the Treasury: “As a result of this determination (currency manipulator), Secretary Mnuchin will engage with the International Monetary Fund to eliminate the unfair competitive advantage created by China’s latest actions.” Said differently, the U.S. and other nations can now manipulate their currency versus the Chinese Yuan.

It is plausible that Trump might pressure other countries, including our allies in Europe and Japan as well as Mexico and Canada, to strengthen their respective currencies against the dollar. Trump can threaten nations with trade restrictions and tariffs if they do not comply. If tariffs are enacted, however, all bets are due to the economic inefficiencies of tariffs or trade restrictions. To the President’s dismay, such action weaken the economy and scare investors as we are seeing with China.  

Threats of trade actions, trade-related actions, or trade agreements might work to weaken the dollar, but such tactics would require time and pinpoint diplomacy. Of all the options, this one requires longer-term patience in awaiting their effect and may not satisfy the President’s desire for short-term results. 

Summary

Before summarizing we leave you with one important thought and certainly a topic for future writings.Globally coordinated monetary policy is morphing into globally competitive monetary policy. This may be the most significant Macro development since the Plaza Accord in 1985 when the Reagan administration, along with other developed nations at that time (West Germany, France, Japan, the UK), coordinated to weaken the U.S. dollar. 

With the Presidential election in about 15 months, we have no doubt that President Trump will do everything in his power to keep financial markets and the economy humming along. The problem facing the President is a Democrat-controlled House, a Fed that is dragging their feet in terms of rate cuts, weakening global growth, and a stronger U.S. dollar. 

We believe the odds that the President tries to weaken the dollar will rise quickly if signs of further economic weakness emerge. Given the situation, investors need to understand what the President can and cannot do to spike economic growth and further how it might affect the prices of financial assets. 

On the equity front, a weaker dollar bodes well for companies that are more global in nature. Most of the companies that have driven the equity indices higher are indeed multi-national. Conversely, it harms domestic companies that rely on imported goods and commodities to manufacture their products. The price of commodities and precious metals are likely to rise with a weaker dollar. A weaker dollar and any price pressures that result would likely push bond yields higher. 

The statistical relationships between the dollar and other asset classes are important to quantify if in fact the dollar may become an economic tool for the President. A full spectrum of those relationships over various timeframes may be found in an addendum to this article for RIA Prosubscribers. Give us a try. All new subscribers receive a 30 day free trial to explore what we have to offer and view the addendum.   

Twitter:  @michaellebowitz

Any opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author, and do not in any way represent the views or opinions of any other person or entity.

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