Framework for Thinking about the Buck: It’s an Overhang, not a Hangover

This was originally written for a blog over at the CFR. The framework is still useful today, IMO. At least you can compare it to how things have kind of turned out. Here is the link to the original.

The Dollar: It’s an Overhang, not a Hangover

By Mark Dow 
July 6, 2009

Few things are more confounding to economists and traders as forecasting currencies. However, as I have come to realize, the approach each group takes is very different. Economists are never wrong, only early; traders are often wrong, but never in doubt. Economists look at interest rate differentials, growth differentials, current account positions, and other fundamental factors. It doesn’t always help much, but it is a defensible place to start. Traders, on the other hand, cognizant or not, focus not on the fundamentals, but on the “fundamental story”. These stories typically emerge to fit recent price action and are then coupled with what economists refer to as stylized facts. Unlike facts, stylized facts are not stubborn things. Some stories turn out to be true, others false, but whether they are true or not the most powerful ones share two characteristics: they are easy to explain and intuitively appealing. And once a good story takes root it can be very difficult to dislodge it—irrespective of how untrue it may be.

“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.

How well does this hangover story hold up? Not well.

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 centers 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.

What about the current account deficit? No one home there either. As soon as the deleveraging accelerated, the US current account took a sharp turn northward. In the chart below I use the trade balance, which comes out monthly, as a proxy to capture the rate of change.

Ultimately, the current account story is much more a credit story than an FX story, in my view. And it is fixing itself without much help from the exchange rate. In fact, as you can see above, the increase in the trade deficit coincided pretty well and pretty monotonically with the great credit bubble in the US. So it shouldn’t surprise us that the decline in credit reverses it. (This also has implications for the need for foreign purchases of Treasuries, which has been cited as another concern.)

Fine. If these stories are wrong, does that mean I am bullish the dollar? The answer is no.

The dollar has an overhang problem.

For the past 60 years the dollar has been the only game in town. It was the lubricant for financial and trade globalization, the undisputed store of value in the international monetary system and the primary medium of exchange/unit of account for commerce. The world held more dollars, and the world transacted more often in dollars. Demand outside the U.S. for dollars grew rapidly for many, many years. For monetary balance inside the U.S. to be maintained, the Fed had to provide these dollars; otherwise interest rates at home would have been much higher.

Fast forward to today. The world has undergone a radical transformation. Abstracting from the current global recession, most countries across the world are in much better economic shape than was the case 15 years ago, and their currencies are more stable and increasingly more freely convertible. People trust their own currencies more, as well as the currencies of other countries. Dollar holders — central banks, sovereign wealth funds, international corporations and individuals alike — realize they have accumulated too many dollars over the years. Holding such a high percentage of one’s precautionary balances in dollars no longer makes sense in today’s world. Not because the dollar is bad per se, but because there are so many opportunities to diversify safely.

Mexicans no longer have to keep as many dollars under the mattress. Brazilian companies no longer need to keep a war chest of dollars hidden in the Cayman Islands in order to ensure access to imported inputs. Sovereign wealth funds have realized that it is neither wise nor prudent to keep so much of its stock of wealth in one currency. Investment management firms are starting to offer more non-dollar share classes for their products. And Italians, Poles, and Turks — peoples closely linked in one way or another to the euro — are thinking less and less in dollars (it is amazing that they still do at all).

The transactional demand for dollars is also declining. This too puts downward pressure on the dollar. In countries like Brazil and India, hotel bills used to be presented in dollars. Not any more. Cabs in emerging economies used to prefer payment in dollars. Now it’s not worth the hassle. Many countries that historically quoted real estate prices in dollars are doing so less and less. Bilateral trade, on an ad hoc basis, is ever more frequently eschewing the dollar for other currencies.

With the demand for dollars structurally falling, the dollar should face headwinds until currency stockpiles have adjusted and a new equilibrium is found. With some 70 percent of dollars in circulation held outside of the US, unwinding this overhang may take a long time. This doesn’t mean we can’t have vicious countertrend rallies in the dollar. Every time risk aversion gets intense enough, the dollar tends to do exactly this. But it does suggest that you can expect the dollar to be undervalued relative to any intertemporal, goods market concept of its underlying value for quite some time.