Monetary Policy Coordination: From Global Easing to Global ‘Tightening’

Abstract: An interesting series of central-bank announcements over the past semester confirmed my view of a global central banking monetary policy coordination. The first two major players that hinted in a speech that the central bank might slow down their asset purchases were the ECB and the BoJ; but more recently we heard hawkish comments coming from the BoC, RBA and even the BoE. In this article, I will first review the quantitative tightening (or the Fed balance sheet reduction program), followed by some comments on the current situation in the other major central banks combined with an FX analysis.

Link ==> US Dollar Analysis 2

Introducing the 3D challenge – Debt, Demographics and Disruption (with a US case study)

Abstract: As a response to the Financial Crisis of 2008, central banks have been running persistent loose monetary policies (NIRP and aggressive asset purchase programs) in order to generate some growth and inflation. Even though the measures chosen by policymakers mainly came from the burst in the housing market (US and Europe), developed economies have also been cornered with another long-term big issue: the 3D problem – Debt, Demographics and Disruption. Demographics reveal a dramatic aging of the developed world’s population (‘Baby Boom effect’), which has been playing a role in the desire of consumers to save more than actually spend. In addition, the long-term solvency of public and private plans has also been a growing concerns across the developed nations, adding pressure on current workers to increase their amount of savings based on a shift in expectations of higher taxes to sustain the secular change in demographics. The effect of an increase in savings have been one of the main factors of a decrease in inflation expectations across the world in addition to a sluggish growth, forcing policymakers to maintain a loose monetary policy, cutting rates to even negative territory and diversifying the asset purchase programs (corporate bonds, ETF and Real estate). The slowdown of inflation, and even deflation for some countries, is an issue for developed nations as it increases the country’s debt in real terms, putting the country under pressure and questioning its long run sustainability.

We then looked at the US economy for our case study on the 3D problem. Our analysis is composed of three sections: in the first one we quickly review US demographics challenge, then in the second section we present the US Federal and Household debt, and in the third part we introduce Disruption in different sectors of the US economy.

Link ==> 3D Problem

A History of the British Pound

In today’s article, we will provide a recap of the history of the British Pound. According to the yearly BIS Foreign Exchange Turnover published in April 2016, the British pound is part of the G10 currencies and is the fourth most ‘traded’ currency with a daily average of 649 billion Dollars. Its percentage share of average daily turnover stands at 12.8%, and its two main ‘counterparties’ are the US Dollar ($470bn) and the Euro ($100bn).

Note that the exchange rate $/£ [or USD/GBP] is also called Cable, a term that derives from the advent of the telegraph in the mid-1800s. Transactions between the British pound and the US Dollar were executed via a Transatlantic Cable, and the first exchange rate was published in The Times on August 10th 1866.

This article will be split in two parts; the first one will [briefly] retrace the origin and the history of Sterling until the End of the Bretton Woods system in 1971, and the second part will explain the trends and reversals of Cable in addition to stating what I believe were the main drivers of the currency pair (from 1971 to today).

I. Origin and History of the Sterling pound between the mid-700s and the end of the Bretton Woods system (1971)

A. Quick history recap

Considered to be the oldest living currency in the world, the pound is 1,200 years old and was born in the latter half of the 8th Century, when silver pennies were the main currency in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. The name [Sterling] pound (or Livre sterling in French) comes from the Latin word Libra Pondo, which means pound weight.

Back in the 8th century, 240 silver pennies represented one pound of weight and it was not until 1489 (under Henry VII) that appeared higher denominated coins with the first pound coin. Then, paper notes began to circulate after the establishment of the Bank of England in 1694, the world’s second oldest central bank (after the Sveriges Riksbank, the Swedish central bank). The Bank of England started as a ‘private company’ with the immediate purpose of raising funds for King William III’s war against France (issuing notes in return for deposits).

Even though there is an infinite amount of [inspiring] work on the Bank of England and the British currency, I am going to move directly to the 19th century when the British pound became the world’s reserve currency for a century after the Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in June 1815 (Foreign Exchange Reserves, Image 1). Great Britain arose as the leading exporter of manufactured goods and services and the largest importer of food and industrial raw materials. Between the mid-1800s and the outbreak of WWI in 1914, 60 percent of the global trade was invoices and settled in British pound (B. Eichengreen, 2005). London became the world’s financial capital in the late 19th century and the export of capital was a major based for the British economy until 1914. As foreign governments were seeking to borrow in sterling, British financial institutions established branches in the colonies and colonial banks opened offices in London. In 1913, Sterling’s share in the Official Foreign Exchange Assets stood at 48%, above Francs (31%) and Marks (15%) according to Lindert’s calculation (1969).

B. WWI outbreak and its consequence on the UK (and Sterling)

Although the US economy surpassed the British economy in size [in real terms] in 1872 (Gheary-Kamis, 1990), the important switch occurred in the early 1910s:

  • the US became an net creditor while the became a net debtor
  • and more importantly, the Federal Reserve was established in 1913 (December 23rd), with the enactment of the Federal Reserve Act

At the outbreak of WWI, the gold standard was suspended and restrictions were placed on the export of gold, which obviously had a negative impact on the British pound (vis-à-vis the US Dollar) as we can see it on Chart 2a. Prior to and during most of the 19th century, one pound was roughly worth 5 US Dollar (Chart 2b), with some ‘turbulence’ in 1860s due to the American Civil War.

Severe inflation (20%+), lack of demand, a high unemployment rate (above 10%) in addition to a 25-percent drop in economic output between 1918 and 1921 launched the Great Depression in United Kingdom at the end of WWI, which last for two decades. The pound first plummeted from $4.70 to $3.50 during that 3-year period before swinging back to its prewar levels (at $4.87).

C. ‘In between’ the Two Wars

The pound ‘rebound’ in the early 1920s (Chart 2a) could be explained by the political desire to maintain the value of Sterling at a ‘high’ rate (i.e. prewar levels) to give Britain an [economic] successful image to the rest of the World. In order achieve that, the UK had to run contractionary fiscal and monetary policy (Image 2a), which increased interest rate differentials (i.e. attracted savings in Britain) and pushed the UK inflation rate below the US one. As the US inflation rate was already very low at that time, the UK was experiencing deflation at that time (Image 2b).

Then, in 1925, Britain re-adopted a form of Gold Standard where the exchange rate was determined by the relative values of gold in the two countries, with a fixing at 4.86 US Dollar per unit of Pound. This Gold Standard ‘return’ was considered to be disastrous (Churchill’s biggest mistake as he was serving as the Chancellor of the Exchequer at that time), as it resulted in persistent deflation, high unemployment rate that led to the General Miners’ Strike of 1926. The UK was stuck in the debt vicious spiral; running a contractionary fiscal and monetary policy during a deflationary recession was increasing both the amount of UK debt in real terms and its burden (high interest rate increased the cost of borrowing). This led to a Balance of Payments issue, and led to a run on the pound. On the top of that, the Wall Street Crash and the beginning of the Great Depression put the British economy under intense pressure, which eventually came off the Gold Standard in September of 1931. In the year that followed, the British pound dropped to lower lows to around 3.25 against the US Dollar. However, as Barry Eichengreen noted in his paper Fetters of Gold and Paper, countries that came off the Gold Standard early (i.e. UK) did better [or less worse] than the countries that remained on it for longer (i.e. US). After a 3-year [1930-1932] pronounced deflationary period in the US (Image 3), rapidly rising prices in the summer of 1933 (after the US went eventually off the gold standard on June 5th 1933) eased the ‘strain’ on other countries and kicked off the dollar depreciation. The British pound rapidly recovered its losses and surged to a new high of $5 by 1934 (Chart 2a). The pound remained afloat and oscillated at around $5 until 1939 and the outbreak of WWII. This depreciation (which brought back the British pound to its low of 3.25 against the greenback) was mainly due to uncertainty around the outcome of the war, as fundamentals were expected to deteriorate very quickly (output collapse, a rise in inflation) indebting the British economy even more.

D. World War II and Bretton Woods period

In 1940, an agreement between the US and UK pegged the pound to the greenback at a rate of $4.03 per unit of pound. This exchange rate remained fixed during WWII and was maintained at the start of the Bretton Woods system (Chart 2a). British emerged from WWII with an unprecedented debt of nearly 250 percent as a share of GDP (most of it owned to the US) with ‘strong’ currency, a [much] less dominant market in terms of competitiveness and a degrading balance of payments (Hirsch, 1965). Despite the soft-loan agreement (a 3.75 billion-dollar loan to the UK by the US negotiated by JM Keynes at a low 2% interest rate with repayment over fifty years) to support British overseas expenditure post WWII, the British pound remained under intense pressure. Chancellor of the Exchequer Sir Stafford Cripps eventually announced a 30-percent pound devaluation from $4.03 to $2.80 in September 1949.

However, the devaluation was not enough as the following two decades were characterised by persistent balance of payment problems and led to the Sterling crisis of 1964-1967. The UK was forced to seek assistance from the Bank of International Settlement and the IMF more than once. Despite persistent current account deficits and a deteriorating balance of payments in 1964-1965 (Image 4), UK officials didn’t react (i.e. devalue) as they argued that devaluation would severely strain Britain’s relations with other countries when the main holders of sterling would begin to withdraw their balances from London and also threaten the international monetary system (Bordo & al., 2009). The pound weakness persisted in 1966 and 1967, covered by lines of credit received by other central banks (i.e. swaps with the NY Fed) and the IMF. But the government eventually ceded and PM Harold Wilson announced that the pound would be devalued from $2.80 to $2.40 on Saturday 18 November 1967. It then remained at that level until end of Bretton Woods.

II. The trends and reversals of Cable since the End of the Bretton Wood System in 1971

Note that all the periods and important events are marked in Chart 1 (see end of article).

A. The Nixon 1971 Shock and Smithsonian Agreements (1971 – 1973)

In addition to signing the Smithsonian agreement at the December 1971 G10 meeting, where the US pledged to peg the dollar at $38 an ounce (instead of $35 during BW) with 2.25% trading bands (instead of 1 percent), the UK also agreed to appreciate their currency against the US Dollar. The pound was worth $2.65 by the end of the first quarter 1972.

B. 1973 – 1976: a rough start

However, it did not take too long for troubles to ‘come back’ in the UK and the pound experienced a series of speculative attacks in the mid-1970s. Cable hit a low of $1.5875 in the last quarter of 1976 and the UK had to call the IMF to counter persistent runs on Sterling. This loan was followed by a series of austerity measures, which helped reduce inflation and improve the economic activity, hence boosting the pound in the second half of the 1970s.

C. 1976 – 1980: US inflation and the Dollar depreciation

The positive UK-US carry trade due to low interest rate run by the Fed in the mid-1970s (as a response to the post first-oil shock recession) gave birth to a four-year shining period for Cable, which recovered by 54% to hit a high of $2.45 in the last quarter of 1980.

D. The V shape of the 1980s

I like to describe the 1980s as a V-shape curve for Cable as there were two major trends during that period. As a result of the second oil shock caused by the Shah revolution in Iran in 1979, oil prices doubled in the following year leading to a sharp increase in inflation in the US in 1979-1980 (peaked at 15% in the first quarter of 1980). In order to reign in the double-digit inflation, Fed chairman Volcker reacted immediately by orchestrating a series of interest rate hikes that levitated the Fed Funds target rate from 10% to nearly 20%. Even though the dramatic increase in interest rates caused a painful recession and a surge in unemployment rate (11%) in the US, it eventually led to international capital inflows as high [real] interest rates became attractive to foreign investment. What followed was a severe appreciation of the US dollar vis-à-vis the major currencies; Cable lost more than half of its value and hit a historical low of $1.0520 in the first quarter of 1985 (Chart 1). This Dollar Rise under the Reagan administration was a problem for the US economy as the current account fell into substantial and persistent deficit (Image 5a). In addition, the US was also running large budget deficit of 5%+ during the same period (Image 5b), which put the country in a twin deficits anomaly and caused considerable difficulties for the American industry (i.e. car producers, engineering and tech companies…).

Therefore, in order to re-boost the US economy, the Plaza Agreement was signed in New York on September 22nd 1985 and France, Japan, West Germany and the United Kingdom agreed to depreciate the US Dollar by intervening in the currency markets. This decision created a secular change in the financial market and immediately reversed the 5-year bull momentum on the US Dollar. The Pound reacted and appreciated roughly 80 percent in the following three years. I am not sure if the [financial] sentence ‘Don’t fight the central banks’ came from this decade, but I think it is a good example to show you how much effect a central bank cohort move can have on the market.

E. 1988 – 1992: the volatile period

We saw a consolidation between 1988 and 1989 to $1.51 after Margaret Thatcher’s Chancellor of the Exchequer Lord Lawson decided to unofficially peg the British pound to the German Mark (UK wasn’t in the Exchange Rate Mechanism yet (Image 8, green period). This caused inflation, a credit bubble and a property boom that eventually crashed in 1989-1990 followed by a recession.

Cable started to recover in the first quarter of 1990 as the interest rate differential increased preference for the British pound (Chart 3). In the middle of 1989, the Federal Reserve began to run a loose monetary policy in order to boost the US economy weakened by the Savings and Loan crisis of the 1980s and 1990s. Fed’s chair Alan Greenspan decreased the Fed Funds rate from 9.75% in March 1989 to 3% in September 1992 to boost productivity (Chart 3). Cable double topped at [perfect] resistance $2.00, a first time in Q1 1991 and a second time in Q3 1992.

It is also important to note that during that time, the Conservative government (Third Thatcher ministry) decided to join the Exchange Rate Mechanism on October 8th 1990 (Image 8, grey period), with the pound set at DM2.95.

16 September 1992: Black Wednesday and ERM exit (Source: Inside the House of Money)

Also called [another] Sterling crisis, the British government was forced to withdraw the Pound Sterling from the ERM on that day, sending the pound into a free fall. Cable tumbled by 30% from [Q3 92] peak to [Q1 93] trough. But what really happened then?

As we mentioned before, the UK tardily joined the ERM in 1990 at a central parity rate of DM2.95 and a trading range band of +/- 6 percent. The exchange rate was arguable judge too strong by many economists at that time, therefore the overvalued currency in addition to high interest rates and falling house prices led the country into a recession in 1991. It became difficult for UK officials to maintain the value of the Pound at around its target against the Deutsch Mark. Meanwhile, Germany was suffering inflationary effects from the 1989-1990 Unification, which led to high interest rates. Therefore, despite a recession, the UK was ‘forced’ to keep interest rates high (10% in September) to maintain the currency regime. Speculation began and global macro traders (i.e. Soros) increasingly sold pounds against the Deutsche Mark. To discourage speculation, UK Chancellor Lamont increased rates to 12% on September 16th with a promise to raise them again to 15%. However, traders continued to sell British pounds, as they knew that increasing rates to defend a currency during a recession is an unsustainable policy.

Eventually, on 16 September 1992, the UK government announced that it would no longer defend the trading band and withdrew the pound of the ERM system. The pound lost 15 percent of its value against the DM in the following weeks and traded as low as DM2.16 in 1995.

Even though we usually do our analysis of a specific currency vis-à-vis the US Dollar, I thought it was important to mention the presence of the Deutsch Mark as it explained Cable’s depreciation in 1992 and 1993.

F. 1993 – 1998: the Dull period with shy Sterling Gains

After the ERM exit, it was dull period for the USD/GBP, Cable oscillated around $1.60 with a shy little upward trend (i.e. shy GBP gains) helped by the small interest rate differentials and a series of trade balance surpluses. It looks like the $1.70 psychological resistance was hard to break between 1996 and 1998 and the Pound traded within a ‘tight’ 10-figure range during these years.

One important event during that period was that the Monetary Policy Committee was given operational responsibility for setting interest rates in 1997 with one [only] mandate: maintain a 2-percent inflation rate in the long run. Traditionally, the Treasury set interest rates.

G. 1999 – 2002: The Sterling Depreciation

 As we saw for the Euro (and the Yen at a lesser extent), the turn of the century was marked by a Dollar appreciation between 1999 and 2002. Cable lost a bit of steam during that period and spent a lot of time flirting with the $1.40 support in 2000 and 2001 (it even hit a low of $1.37 in Q2 2001). I have not found any supportive literature to explain this downward bias, but it is not absurd to assume that some of the dollar strength came from a surge in the equity market capitalization in the US – with the Tech Boom – and potentially a higher productivity than in the United Kingdom.

H. The 2002 – 2008 GBP appreciation (or US Dollar depreciation)

The US Dollar started to tumble in late 2001 / early 2002, which was the beginning of a 6-year bull period for Cable. The exchange rate went north 50% and reached a high of $2.11 in the last quarter of 2007 (with a small consolidation in 2005). The (inflation-adjusted) trade-weighted dollar exchange rate (i.e. see REER) steadily depreciated, falling by roughly 25 percent (Image 6). During that period, US was printing persistent twin deficits: Current Account deficits print a high of 6 percent in 2006 (Image 7a) while Budget deficits were ranging between 2 and 3.5 percent as a share of GDP (Image 7b). In addition, the Fed decreased interest rates to 1.75% after the 9/11 attacks and then to 1 percent in 2003, helping the government to roll its debt at lower costs and finance the Iraq War (total cost to the United States was at 3 trillion USD according to Stiglitz and Bilmes, 2010).

I. 2008: Financial Crisis and the Risk-Off aversion

The British pound saw a massive depreciation in 2008 due to the risk-off sentiment and the sudden demand for Dollars; Cable tumbled 36%+ from [Q4 2007] peak of $2.11 to [Q1 2009] trough of $1.35. In the early 21th century, Sterling had lost its reserve currency for a long time, so when asset prices took a massive hit in 2007-2008 the pound did too. The two currencies that acted as ‘strong’ safe-havens were the US Dollar and the Japanese Yen. This raised an interesting debate on whether countries should have huge amount of debt (denominated in their local currency) in order to have a currency that acts as a safe-haven in harsh period. When you think about it, the two safe-havens are the currencies of the two most indebted nations ($20tr for the US and $11tr for Japan, as of today).

The UK was sharply impacted by the crisis; to give you an idea, the pound’s [36-percent] fall vis-à-vis the US Dollar wasn’t even enough to make up for weakening foreign demand. It took the country’s economy 6 years to come back to its pre-crisis level (summer 2014, ONS), with a debt-to-GDP ratio that soared from 51% in 2008 to 89% in 2014.

Bank of England’s answer: Like many other central banks, the BoE slashed rates from 5 percent in the beginning of 2008 to 0.5% in Q1 2009 (the lowest since the BoE establishment in 1694). In addition, the Bank of England press the QE bottom like in the US and created £375bn of new money between 2009 and 2012.

The series of measures adopted by central bankers brought back interest in the Sterling pound, considered to be ‘cheap’ or undervalued relative to its peers. Cable regained 50% of its value in three quarters and hit a high of $1.71 during the third quarter of 2009; however, the recovery wasn’t very long as the Sovereign debt crisis emerged in Europe (at that time is was Greece) and impacted the British economy (and its currency) as well.

J. 2011 – summer 2013: the other dull period

Bizarrely, the British pound wasn’t affected too much during the [second] EZ sovereign debt crisis between Q3 2011 and mid-2012. For almost two-and-a-half years, Cable traded around $1.50-$1.60 with pressure on the downside in the beginning of 2013. The pressure came after it lost its top AAA credit rating for the first time since 1978 on expectations that growth would ‘remain sluggish over the next few years’. At that time, traders were starting to predict that Cable would retest its 1.40-1.4250 support range as the Pound was clearly not a hot currency in the beginning of 2013. In addition, investors were also starting to look at the Euro’s momentum after the buy-on-dips that followed Draghi’s ‘Whatever it takes’ in July 2012.

Despite the UK weakness, the British pound didn’t fall to further levels as it was ‘saved’ by a dovish Fed and a US Dollar in the coma. In the last quarter of 2012, Bernanke announced a further round of QE with monthly purchases totalling $85bn (of Treasuries and MBS) in order to boost productivity. This prevented the British pound of depreciating too much and raise interest in the cheap Euro at that time.

K. August 2013: New BoE Governor Mark Carney took office and the Pound experienced a fantastic year

In the summer of 2013, Marc Carney left the Bank of Canada to take over Mervyn King’s place as the new Governor of the Bank of England. Then, what followed was a series of good news and positive fundamentals in the UK; the British pound switched from the no-interest status to traders’ favourite currency (with the Euro, there were the market’s Darlings). Cable soared from its $1.48 lows to hit a 6-year high of $1.72 with market participants pricing in a sooner interest rate hike. Cable’s good driver of that one-year bull period was the increase in implied rates [looking at the short-sterling futures contract]. Moreover, Britain was the fastest-growing major economy in 2014, printing an annual growth of 2.9% (surpassing the US and its 2.4%).

L. Summer 2014: the Dollar wake-up and the start of a Bear currency market for the Pound

As I already wrote it in a previous post on the UK, the last positive words on the British economy came out of Carney’s mouth during a speech he gave at the Mansion House on June 12th 2014 (the same night of the kick-start of the World Cup in Brazil). He said that the UK was on a positive momentum (i.e. fundamentals were good) and hinted that the Bank of England may rise rates sooner than the market expected. At that time, I remember that the futures market was pricing in a 25bps hike by the end of Q4 2014.

However, everything vanished a few weeks later and more and more participants were starting to notice that the British pound was showing signs of ‘fatigue’ and that a consolidation was coming. In addition, May 2014 was also the announcement of the ‘Euro’s Death’ and that the single currency expected depreciation may spur an overall Dollar strength. And it happened… According to the DXY index, the Dollar strengthen by 25 percent against its main trading partners between July 2014 and March 2015. Cable tumbled from a $1.72 to $1.4635 during that same period.

In early 2015, most of the market participants was pricing in another 15 to 20 percent increase in the Dollar on expectations of the Fed starting a tightening cycle (taking the two previous Dollar Rally that we described earlier as empirical data: the Reagan Rally in the beginning of the 1980s and the Clinton Rally that occurred in the late 1990s).

2016: The Brexit effect and monetary policy divergence

After a brief pause in 2015 as the Fed halted its tightening cycle [due to the sharp sell-off that occurred in the beginning of 2016], Cable continued its bear market against the US Dollar in 2016 on speculation of a Brexit Yes vote first (in favour of leaving the EU), and then on the concretisation of the Yes vote (52% in favour of Brexit) following the referendum held on June 23rd. The pound traded below the 1.20 level against the greenback after the announcement, its lowest level in 21 years, and remains currently under pressure as Brexit uncertainty will continue until Article 50 gets triggered.

BoE answers to Brexit

After four years of status quo [and hints of potential rate hikes], the Bank of England announced a new round of QE in August last year targeting £60bn of monthly purchases (of which £10bn of corporate debt) and cut its Official Bank rate by 25bps to 0.25%. With the Fed now [seriously] reconsidering starting a tightening cycle after a first hike last month and three potential rate increase in 2017 (DotPlot Gradual Path), the monetary policy divergence between the US and UK and the political uncertainty in Europe (and UK) will weigh on the pound in the near future.

Chart 1. GBPUSD historical monthly candlesticks since 1971 (Source: Bloomberg)

gbpcandle

Chart 2a. Cable historical rate 1915 – 2013 

GBPUSDHis.gif

Chart 2b. Cable historical rate since 1791

HistoryPound.JPG

Chart 3. UK Official Bank Rate (Red Line) versus US Fed Funds Rate (White Line)

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Image 1. Reserve currency status (Source: JP Morgan)

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Image 2a. UK Budget deficit in the 1920s (Source: ONS)

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Image 2b. UK Inflation Rate in the 1920s (Source: ONS)

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Image 2c. UK Unemployment Rate in the 1920s (Source: ONS)

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Image 3. US Annual Inflation in 1930-1939 (Source: BLS)

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Image 4. UK Current Account in the 1960s (Source: Trading Economics)

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Image 5a. US Current Account in the 1980s (Source: Trading Economics)

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Image 5b. US Budget Deficits in the 1980s (Source: Trading Economics)

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Image 6. US Dollar REER (Source: OECD)

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Image 7a. US Current Account in the 2000s (Source: Trading Economics)

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Image 7b. US Budget Deficits in the 2000s (Source: Trading Economics)

BudgetDeficit2000.JPG

Retracing the US Dollar Q4 rise…

An important topic that has been making the headline over the past few weeks is the new surge of the US Dollar (vis-à-vis the major currencies) in the last quarter of 2016. Since its Obama Rise peak that occurred in mid-March 2015 (after a 25% appreciation), the US Dollar has been ranging against most of the major currencies (except the British pound due to political uncertainty and post-Brexit effect in June, and more recently the Mexican peso). The main reason for that long period of stagnation, in my opinion, was a shift in expectations of monetary policy in the US. After the Fed stepped out of the Bond Market (on October 28th 2014), market’s participants have been mainly focusing on the short-end of the curve, questioning themselves if the Fed was going to start a tightening monetary policy cycle. We saw a hike in December 2015 (25bps), which was immediately halted due to the market sell-off that followed afterwards (13% drawdown in US equities, 20% in Europe and Japan…). Therefore, the implied probability of a second hike in 2016 crashed, which was confirmed by the 7 FOMC meetings that followed (i.e. status quo).

Then, interest in the US Dollar started to emerge again in Q4 2016; the greenback experienced a 8%+ appreciation between October 1st and its December high of 13.65 (28th) according to the DXY index (Chart 1). There are a number of explanations to that recent surge: market was gradually pricing in a rate hike for the December meeting, political uncertainty rising in Europe or Infinite QE in Japan to protect the yield curve. All these stories make sense to explain the Dollar appreciation, therefore let’s retrace the important events that occurred in the last quarter of 2016.

Chart 1. US Dollar index in 2015-2016 (Source: Bloomberg)

usdollarhis

  1. Higher inflation and a positive post-Trump effect

First of all, the rebound in oil prices relieved pressure on energy-related companies [that have been falling one by one, applying to Chapter 11 bankruptcy] and had a positive effect on expected inflation. The price of a barrel has doubled since its February’s low of $26 and is currently trading slightly below $54 (Chart 2, red line) and obviously relieved US policymakers’ inflation anxiety. The 5Y5Y inflation swap forward (Chart 2, white line) stands now at 2.42%, higher than the 1.80% recorded last June. As a consequence, US long-term yields followed the move and the 10-year Treasury yield surged from a low of 1.36% reached in July last year to 2.44% today. With the unemployment rate below 5% and a Q3 GDP growth of 3.5% (annual QoQ), it seems inflation had been the main concern of the Fed’s officials in order to start tightening [again].

Therefore, on December 14th, US policymakers decide to raise the federal funds rate by 25bps to 0.5%-0.75% [and the discount rate from 1% to 1.25%], repeating a gradual policy path plan with three potential hikes in 2017. Even though it was considered to be the most ‘priced in’ hike of any Fed meeting ever, it pushed the implied rates to the upside with the current OIS (Chart 3, purple line) trading almost 1 percent above the OIS at the September meeting (Chart 3, red line). This change in implied rates was reflected in the Dollar appreciation.

Chart 2. US inflation overlaid with Oil Prices and US 10-year yield (Source: Bloomberg)

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Chart 3. Fed’s dot plot and implied rates (Source: Bloomberg)

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I wasn’t very surprised when the Fed officials announced the rate hike, however I was wondering if we would have seen such optimism if equity markets ‘followed’ the global bond sell-off after the election (Trump effect). The positive US equity market reaction to Trump’s victory also comforted US policymakers for the December’s hike; I strongly believe that the decision would have been much harder if they had to deal with a sudden equity sell-off. Instead, the SP500 reached new record highs (2,277) last months.

One explanation of this development is based on investors’ expectation of an expansionary fiscal policy that will boost economic growth and inflation in the future, which are usually positive news for equities and negative news for bonds in theory (see Four Quadrants matrix – image 1).

Image 1. The ‘Four Quadrants’ framework (Source: Gavekal Research)

  Quandrant.png

   2. Political uncertainty rising in Europe, the rigger of many ‘forgotten’ problems

A popular trade that was running in the last quarter of 2016 was to be long the Italian-German 10-year spread ahead of the Italian referendum that occurred on December 4th. Market was pricing a potential rejection (55% chance), leading to an increase in political uncertainty in Europe, rising spreads between periphery and core and weakening the Euro.

If we look at Chart 4, we can see that the spike in the Italian 10-year yield (Chart 4, white line) could explain the Euro weakness (hence, USD strength). While the 10-year yield increased from 1.20% to 2.20% in two months (October and November), EURUSD (Chart 4, red line, inverted) went down 7 figures and reached a new low of 1.0350 post-referendum (59.1% of voters rejected the reform bill, which was followed immediately by PM Renzi’s resignation).

Even though yields have been decreasing over the past month (the 10-year now standing at 1.73%), political uncertainty could be the trigger of the two ‘delayed’  and ‘forgotten’ issues [or Black Swans] in Europe: the weak banking system and the Sovereign debt crisis. Not only Italy (in this case) cannot survive with higher yields (the country has 2.34 trillion EUR of outstanding debt – 132.6% of GDP – which needs to be rolled with low yields), but a sell-off in equities will increase the percentage of NPLs and potentially forced their banks to bail-in their depositors. The failure of Monte Paschi di Siena’s plan to raise 5-billion euros in capital from the market was ‘solved’ by a Nationalization (the bank’s third bailout). It was announced that the government will own at least 75% of the common equity after the bank is nationalized, a rescue that will cost the Italian government (i.e. taxpayers) about 6.6bn Euros according to the ECB (4.6bn Euros are needed to meet capital requirements and 2bn Euros to compensate the retail bondholders).

Therefore, I strongly believe that we will hear other similar stories in the year to come, as Italy is not the only country facing non-performing loans (NPLs) issues that affect the banking sector. Therefore, political uncertainty in Europe will weigh on the single currency and increase investors’ interest to the US Dollar.

Chart 4. Italian 10-year yield versus EURUSD (inv.) (Source: Bloomberg)

ItalyandEuro.JPG

   3. The weakness in the Japanese Yen

In Japan, the BoJ introduced the ‘Yield Control’ operation in order to stabilize the steepness of the JGB yield curve, offering to buy an unlimited amount of debt at fixed yields to prevent a significant surge in rates. This is kind of a puzzle, as Japan Officials cannot afford higher yields [as many indebted developed nations], however too-low yields impact revenues of the banking system and the pension / mutual funds.

I don’t think the particular surge in USDJPY was explained by this new ‘BoJ Operation’ and I prefer to say that the Yen depreciation was a result of a Risk-on effect post-US election result in addition to the recent spike in US yields. USDJPY (Chart 5, candlesticks) trades above 117 and equities (Chart 5, red line) are above the 19,000 level for the first time since September 2015; and you can see how the increase in US yields (Chart 5, blue line) is ‘responsible’ to the Yen weakness.

The question now is to know if the late Q4 Yen weakness will persist in early 2017, with USDJPY pair attracting more and more momentum investors looking to hit the 125 resistance. We know historically that the [positive] trend on the USDJPY can halt [and reverse] very quickly if investors are suddenly skeptical about the global macro situation (Fed delaying its 2017 hike path, China liquidity issues or rising yields in peripheral European countries). On the top of that, if market starts to price in inflation in 2017, will the BoJ be able to counter a JGB tantrum and keep the 10-year JGB yield at around 0%?

One important thing about this recent Yen weakness though is that it allows the Japanese government to buy time in order to implement new reforms and increase productivity. If you remember well, Abe stated in September 2015 his 20% increase in Japan GDP in the medium term (increase from 500tr to 600tr Yen in 5 years).

Chart 5. USDJPY, Nikkei 225 and US 10-year yield (Source: Bloomberg)

OverallJapan.JPG

   4. The Chinese Yuan devaluation

Another currency that has been making the headlines is the Chinese Yuan. Over the past year, the Chinese Yuan has shed roughly 7 percent of its value against the greenback (Chart 6, USDCNY in candlesticks). At the same FX reserves (Chart 6, blue line) have been shrinking; reserves plunged by $69.1bn to $3.05tr in November (most in 10 months), bringing the reduction in the stockpile to almost USD 1tr from a record $4 trillion reach in June 2014. As Horseman Capital noted in their article on China (Is China running out of money?), if FX reserves continue to plummet and the PBoC wants to maintain control of the exchange rate, Chinese officials will face some difficult choices. One option would be to raise interest rates (the benchmark one-year lending rate stands currently at 4.35%) in order to reduce outflows and attract interest in the Yuan (high interest rate differential vs. the other countries). This would have a negative effect on the country’s growth outlook, which is already concerning the developed economies due to the high levels of corporate debt and overheated property markets. Another option would be to reduce the holding of deposits by cutting the reserve requirement rate (RRR) which stands currently at 17%. We can see in Chart 7 that the Asset-Liabilities spread (represented by Foreign Currency Assets and Deposits from Other banks) has narrowed drastically over the past year, therefore cutting the reserve rates for banks could be a temporary solution for the PBoC. The problem of the second option is that it will continue to weaken the Chinese Yuan vis-à-vis the US Dollar, which could increase political tensions between US and China.

Interestingly, an asset that has [sort-of] tracked the USDCNY move this year is the Bitcoin (Chart 6, red line) , which raised from $400 in January last year to over $1,000 today. The cryptocurrency was described as the ‘good’ instrument to circumvent capital control in China in periods of large capital outflows like today. Like gold, Bitcoin is readily available in China and can be sold for foreign currencies without problems and therefore have attracted a lot of buyers over the past year.

Chart 6. USDCNY, Bitcoin and Chinese FX reserves (Source: Bloomberg)

ChinaOver.JPG

Chart 7. PBoC Balance Sheet (Source: Horseman Capital)

PBoCBaS.JPG

To conclude, there are several factors explaining the US Dollar strength in the last quarter of 2016, and it looks like the trend should continue in early 2017 (extreme monetary policy divergence to persist in 2017, black swan events coming from Europe, difficulties of Chinese officials to deal with the capital outflows…). However its trend cannot persist indefinitely as we know that it will eventually have negative effect on the US economy in the long term. For instance, we know that a strong dollar hurts US companies’ earnings, which is already a problem if we look at the 12-month forward earnings (Chart 8, green line). In addition, if long-term interest rates increase persistently in the future (breaking through the 3-percent level seen in the 2013 taper tantrum), the US could face a budget crisis: how is the government going to fund its budget deficit [which is expected to grow over USD 1 trillion again under Trump presidency] if China and other central banks are liquidating US Paper at record pace?

Chart 8. SP500 overlaid with 12-month forward earnings (Source: Bloomberg)

ForwardEarnings.JPG

FX positioning ahead of the September FOMC meeting

As of today, most market participants are getting prepared [and positioned] for the FOMC meeting on September 20/21st in order to see if policymakers stick with their Jackson-Hole hints, therefore I think it is a good time to share my current FX positioning.

Fed’s meeting: hike or no-hike?

I think that one important point investors were trying to figure out the last Jackson Hole Summit last week was to know if US policymakers were considering starting [again] their monetary policy tightening cycle after a [almost] 1-year halt. If we look at the FedWatch Tool available in CME Group website, the probability of a 25bps rate hike in September stands now at 18% based on a 30-day Fed Fund futures price of 99.58 (current contract October 2016, implied rate is 42bps).

CME.png

(Source: CME Group)

In addition, if we look at the Eurodollar futures market, the December Contract trades at 99.08, meaning the market is pricing a 1% US Dollar rate by the end of the year. We can clearly notice that the market expects some action coming from US policymakers within the next few months. However, recent macroeconomic data have shown signs of deterioration in the US that could potentially put the rate hike on hold for another few months. Following last week disappointing manufacturing ISM data that came out at 49.4 below its expansion level (50), ISM Service dropped to 51.4, its lowest number since February 2010 and has been dramatically declining since mid-2015. I strongly believe that there are both important indicators to watch, especially when they are flirting with the expansion/recession 50-level. We can see in the chart below that the ISM manufacturing PMI (white line) tracks really ‘well’ the US Real GDP (Annual YoY, yellow line), and as equity markets tend to do poorly in periods of recession we can say that the ISM Manufacturing / Services can potentially predict sharp drawdowns in equities.

Chart 1. ISM – blue and white – and Real US GDP Annual YoY – yellow line (Source: Bloomberg)

ISM_US.JPG

Another disappointment came from the Job market with Non-Farm Payrolls dropping back below the 200K level (it came out at 151K for August vs. 180K expected) and slower earnings growth (average hourly earnings increased by 2.4% YoY in August, lower than the previous month’s annual pace of 2.7%).

This accumulation of poor macro figures halted the US Dollar gains we saw during the J-Hole Summit and it seems that the market is starting to become more reluctant to a rate hike in September. The Dollar Index (DXY) is trading back below 95 and the 10-year rate is on its way to hit its mid-August 1.50% support (currently trades at 1.54%). What is interesting to analyse is which currency will benefit most from this new Dollar Weakness episode.

FX positioning

USDJPY: After hitting a high of 104.32 on Friday, the pair is once again poised to retest its 100 psychological support in the next few days. This is clearly a nightmare for Abe and Kuroda as the Yen has strengthen by almost 20% since its high last June (125.85). If we have a look at the chart below, the trend looks clearly bearish at the moment and longs should consider putting a tight top at 105. I would stay short USDJPY as I don’t see any aggressive response from the BoJ until the next MP meeting on September 21st.

Chart 2. USDJPY candlesticks (Source: Bloomberg)

USDJPY.JPG

EURUSD: Another interesting move today is the EURUSD 100-SMA break out, the pair is currently trading at 1.1240 and remains on its one-year range 1.05 – 1.15. As a few articles pointed out recently, the ECB has been active in the market since March 2015 and has purchased over 1 trillion government and corporate bonds. The balance sheet total assets now totals 3.3 trillion Euros (versus 4 trillion EUR for the Fed), an indicator to watch as further easing announced by Draghi will tend to weigh on the Euro in the long run. The ECB meets in Frankfurt on Thursday and the market expect an extension of the asset purchases beyond March 2017 (by 6 to 9 months). I don’t see a further rate cut (to -0.5%) or a boost in the asset purchase program for the moment, therefore I don’t think we will see a lot of volatility in the coming days. I wouldn’t take an important position in the Euro, however I can see EURUSD trading above 1.13 by Thursday noon.

Chart 3. EURUSD and Fibonacci retracements (Source: Bloomberg)

eur

Another important factor EU policymakers will have to deal with in the future is lower growth and inflation expectations. The 2017 GDP growth expectation decreased to 1.20% (vs. 1.70% in the beginning of the year) and the 5y/5y forward inflation expectation rate is still far below the 2-percent target (it stands currently at 1.66% according to FRED).

Sterling Pound: New Trend, New Friend? The currency that raised traders’ interest over the past couple of weeks has been the British pound as it was considered oversold according to many market participants. Cable is up 5% since its August low (1.2866) and is approaching its 1.35 resistance. I would try to short some as I think many traders will try to lock in their profit soon which could slow down the Pound appetite in the next few days. If 1.35 doesn’t hold, then it may be interesting to play to break out with a new target at 1.3600.

Chart 4. GBPUSD and its 1.35 resistance (Source: Bloomberg)

GBP.JPG

I would short some (GBPUSD) with a tight stop loss at 1.3520 and a target at 1.3350. No action expected from the BoE on September 15th, Carney is giving the UK markets some ‘digestion’ time after the recent action (rate cut + QE).

USDCHF: For the Swissie, my analysis stands close to the Yen’s one, and therefore I think the Swiss Franc strength could continue in the coming days. I like 0.96 as a first ‘shy’ target, and I would look at the 0.9550 level if the situation remains similar (poor macro and quiet vol) in the short term.

AUDUSD: Australia, as many other commodity countries (Canada, New Zealand), remains in a difficult situation as the deterioration of the terms of trade will tend to force RBA policymakers to move towards a ZIRP policy. However, lower rates will continue to inflate housing prices, which continue to grow at a two-digit rate. According to CoreLogic, house prices averaged 10-percent growth over the past year, with Sydney and Melbourne up 13% and 13.9%, respectively. Australian citizens are now leverage more than ever; the Household debt-to-GDP increased from 70% in the beginning of the century to 125% in Q4 2015 (see chart below). This is clearly unsustainable over the long-run, which obviously deprives policymakers to lower rates too ‘quickly’ to counter disinflation. As expected, the RBA left its cash rate steady at 1.50% today, which will play in favor of the Aussie in the next couple of weeks. One interesting point as well is that the Aussie didn’t react to an interest rate cut on August 2nd, something that Governor Glenn Stevens will have to study in case policymakers want to weaken the currency. There is still room on the upside for AUDUSD, first level stands at 0.7750.

Australia.png

(Source: Trading Economics)

Chinese Yuan: The Renminbi has been pretty shy over the past two month, USDCNH has been ranging between 6.62 and 6.72. The onshore – offshore spread is now close to zero as you can see it on the chart below (chart on the bottom). I don’t see any volatility rising in the next few weeks, therefore I wouldn’t build a position in that particular currency.

Chart 5. CNY – CNH spread analysis (Source: Bloomberg)

CNH spread.JPG

 To conclude, I think that we are going to see further dollar weakness ahead of the FOMC September meeting as practitioners will start to [re]consider a rate hike this time, especially if fundamentals keep being poor in the near future.

Japan: Flirting with Helicopter Money

As I already mentioned in a few articles, the Yen strength over the past year was going to be a problem somehow for PM Abe and the BoJ. After reaching a high of 125.86 in the beginning of June last year, USDJPY has entered into a bearish trend since last summer [2015] with the Yen constantly appreciating on the back of disappointments coming from the BoJ (i.e. no more QE expansion). The pair reached a low of 99 post-Brexit, down by 21.3% from peak to trough, sending the equities down below 15,000 (a 30% drawdown from June high of 21,000). The plunge in the stock market was directly reflected in the performance of the Japanese pension and mutual funds; for instance, the USD 1.4 trillion GPIF lost more than USD 50bn for the 12 months through March 2016 (end of the fiscal year). The Fund, as the graph shows below (Source: GPIF) , has been selling its JGBs to the BoJ over the past few years due to Abenomics (the allocation declined from 67.4% in 2011 to 37.8% in 2015) and has mainly been increasing its allocation in domestic and international stocks. With more than USD 13 trillion of sovereign bonds trading at a negative yield – the Japan Yield Curve negative up to 15 years – you clearly understand why I am always saying that Abe and the BoJ cannot lose against the equity market.

GPIF

A the situation was getting even worse post-Brexit, with the Yen about to retest its key 100-level against the US Dollar, the Yen weakness halted suddenly on rumours of potential ‘Helicopter Money’ on the agenda.

It started when Reuters reported that former Fed chairman Bernanke was going to meet PM Abe and BoJ Kuroda in Tokyo to discuss Brexit and BoJ’s current negative interest rate policy. However, market participants started to price in a new move from the BoJ – i.e. Helicopter Money, a term coined by American economist Milton Friedman in 1969. In his paper ‘The Optimum Quantity of Money’, he wrote:

‘Let us suppose now that one day a helicopter flies over this community and drops an additional $1,000 in bills from the sky, which is, of course, hastily collected by members of the community. Let us suppose further that everyone is convinced that this is a unique event which will never be repeated.’

In short, Helicopter Money is a way of stimulate the economy and generate some inflation by directly transferring money to the nation’s citizens. This money, as a contrary of refinancing operations or QE, will never be reimbursed.

Buy the rumors, sell the fact?

The effect on the currency was immediate, and USDJPY soared from 100 to [almost] 107 in the past 12 years, levitating equities as you can see it on the chart below (SP500 in yellow line overlaid with USDJPY candlesticks). It was confirmed that on the week ending July 15th, the Yen had his biggest drop in the 21st century. The SP500 index reached its all-time high of 2,175 today and in my opinion, the Yen weakness is the best explanation to equities testing new highs in the US.

SPandYen

(Source: Bloomberg)

Talking with Bernanke: Conversations and Rumors

As the meeting was held in private, we don’t have any detail on the conversation. On common sense, you would first think that the discussion would be on the potential BoJ retreat from the market as its figures are starting to be really concerning (35% of JGBs ownership, 55% of the country’s ETF, 85% total-assets-to-GDP ratio). It is clear that the BoJ cannot continue the 80-trillion-yen program forever, and from what we see in Japan [markets or fundamentals], the effectiveness of monetary policy is gone.

However, it looks to me that market participants are convinced that the BoJ will act further, which is to say adopt a new measure. This was clearly reflected in the currency move we saw, and they [better] come with something in the near future if Japan officials don’t want to see a Yen at 95 against the greenback. The next monetary policy meeting is on July 29th, an event to watch.

Introducing Helicopter Money

I run into a series of really nice and interesting articles over the past couple of weeks, and I will first start by introducing this chart from Jefferies that summarizes the different schemes of Helicopter Money very well.

chopper money schematic

I was only aware of the first scheme, where the central bank directly sends money to the households or directly underwrites JGBs. However, as Goldman noted, the second popular scheme would be to convert all the JGBs purchased by the BoJ on the secondary market into zero-coupon perpetual bonds. When you think that a quarter of Japan revenues from tax (and stamps) are used to service debt with the BoJ running out of inventories (i.e. JGBs) to buy, the second scheme makes a lot of sense in fact.

The other part that Goldman covered was on the legal and historical side. As the picture below (Source: Jefferies) shows you, Article 5 of Japan’s Public Finance Law ‘prohibits the BoJ from underwriting any public bonds’. However, under special circumstances, the BoJ may act so within limits approved by a Diet resolution. In other words, the BoJ can underwrite public bonds. The only problem is once Helicopter Money is adopted, it is difficult to stop it. Japan already ‘experienced helicopter money’ in the 1930s after it abandoned the gold standard on December 13th 1931. It first devalued the Yen by 40% in 1932 and 1933, and then engaged in large government deficit spending to stimulate its economy; it was called the Takahashi fiscal expansion (Japan FinMin, Takahashi Korekiyo, also referred as the Japanese ‘Keynes’). As Mark Metzler described in Lever of Empire: The International Gold Standard and the Crisis of Liberalism in Prewar Japan (2006), ‘increased government spending was funded by direct creation of money by the BoJ’.

helicopter primer 2

It was not until 1935 that inflation start rising, and the expansionary policies of Takahashi’s successor after the FinMin assassination in 1936 led the country to a balance of payments crisis and hyper-inflation.

‘Be careful what you wish for’.

In my opinion, as central banks shouldn’t be too focus on the currency, an interesting way of stimulating an economy would be by transferring money directly to citizens’ account. The BoJ could put a maturity date to the money they transfer (i.e. the citizen has one year maximum to spend the money he received), and ‘obliged’ their citizens to spend it on Japanese goods, therefore stimulating the internal demand and eventually leading to a positive feedback loop.

The announcement of additional measures from Japan in the near future should continue to weigh on the Yen, and USDJPY could easily re-reach 110 quite quickly if rumors become more and more real.