Doug Noland: America First and the Decapitation of King Dollar

This is a syndicated repost courtesy of Credit Bubble Bulletin . To view original, click here. Reposted with permission.

The U.S. ran a $71.6 billion Goods Trade Deficit in December, the largest goods deficit since July 2008’s $76.88 billion. The U.S. likely accumulated a near $550 billion Current Account Deficit in 2017, also near the biggest since before the crisis. Going all the way back to 1982, the U.S. has posted only two quarterly surpluses (Q1, Q2 1991) in the Current Account. Since 1990, the U.S has run cumulative Current Account Deficits of $10.177 TN. From the Fed’s Z.1 report, Rest of World holdings of U.S. financial asset began the nineties at $1.738 TN; closed out 2008 at $13.699 TN; and ended Q3 2017 at $26.347 TN. It’s gone rather parabolic – with a curiously similar trajectory to equities markets.

For better than three decades, the U.S. has been in an enviable position of trading new financial claims for foreign manufactured goods. The U.S. has literally flooded the world with dollar balances. In the process, the U.S. exported Credit Bubble Dynamics (including financial innovation and central bank doctrine) to the world. When the central bank to the world’s reserve currency actively inflates, the entire world is welcome to inflate. The resulting global monetary disorder ensured a world of fundamentally vulnerable currencies.

Despite unrelenting Current Account Deficits, there have been two distinct “king dollar” episodes. There was the “king dollar” period of the late-nineties, fueled by global financial instability, a U.S. edge in technology and, importantly, the Greenspan Fed’s competitive advantage in sustaining U.S. securities markets inflation. More recently, a resurgent “king dollar” was winning by default in 2013-2016, as the ECB, BOJ and others implemented massive “whatever it takes” QE and rate programs. Moreover, the shale revolution and a dramatic reduction in oil imports was to improve the U.S. trade position. Oil imports did shrink dramatically, but this was easily offset by American consumers’ insatiable appetite for imported goods.

It’s an intriguing case of parallel analytical universes. There’s the bullish – U.S. as the world’s invincible superpower – view. America is blessed with superior systems – economic, governmental, market and technological. The world’s best and brightest still yearn to come to the land of opportunity. And with a few notable exceptions, this view has received almost constant affirmation from booming equities, debt securities and asset markets. Robust bond markets, in particular, ensured insatiable international demand for dollars. Surely, concern for U.S. Trade and Current Account Deficits is archaic, at best.

The opposing view holds that the U.S. financial situation is unsound and untenable. A deindustrialized “services” and finance-based economy is dependent upon unending Credit expansion, with the vast majority of new Credit non-productive in nature. The U.S. boom is again financed by unsound leveraging, this time generated chiefly by global central banks and foreign-sourced speculative finance. The perpetual outflow of U.S. currency balances internationally ensures at some point a crisis of confidence in the dollar. What’s more, extreme monetary inflation by the other major central banks since 2012 only increases the likelihood of a more systemic crisis of confidence throughout global markets and currencies. The resulting unprecedented looseness in global monetary conditions over recent years has promoted a degree and scope of excess sufficient for a deep and prolonged global crisis.

It’s been my long-hold expectation that the world at some point would discipline U.S. profligacy. The world instead followed in our footsteps. Global central banks accommodated unfettered finance, adopted inflationism and, without protest, recycled trade surpluses right back into U.S. financial markets.

There was Greenspan’s “conundrum” and Bernanke’s “global savings glut.” The reality is that U.S. trade deficits have been at the heart of a runaway expansion of market-based finance around the world. This dysfunctional and precarious financial backdrop was interrupted temporarily in 2008. Zero/negative rates along with $14 TN (and counting) of central bank liquidity fueled a much more systemic Bubble of unprecedented dimensions. Importantly, central bankers came together to support a common goal: reflation of markets and economies. Concerted policymaking – from Washington to Ottawa, London, Frankfurt, Zurich, Tokyo, Sydney, Beijing and beyond – has been fundamental to the synchronized global surge in risk-taking, over-liquefied market Bubbles and economic recovery.

January 24 – New York Times (Jack Ewing): “Mario Draghi… directed unusually sharp criticism at Steven Mnuchin, the United States Treasury secretary…, effectively accusing Mr. Mnuchin of violating agreements among nations against starting currency wars. Mr. Draghi… said he objected to ‘the use of language in discussing exchange rate developments that doesn’t reflect the terms of reference that have been agreed.’ He then quoted from an agreement reached in Washington in October under which countries promised to ‘refrain from competitive devaluations.’ …Mr. Draghi portrayed Mr. Mnuchin’s comments as part of a broader deterioration in international etiquette. At a meeting of the central bank’s Governing Council that preceded the news conference, Mr. Draghi said, ‘Several members expressed concern and this concern was broader than simply the exchange rate. It was about the overall status of international relations right now.’”

January 25 – Reuters (Doina Chiacu): “U.S. President Donald Trump said on Thursday he ultimately wants the dollar to be strong, contradicting comments made by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin one day earlier. ‘The dollar is going to get stronger and stronger and ultimately I want to see a strong dollar,’ Trump said…, adding that Mnuchin’s comments had been misinterpreted.”

January 25 – CNBC (Sam Meredith): “Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Thursday he spends little time thinking about dollar weakness over the short term, walking back his comments that sent the U.S. currency reeling amid fears of a trade war. Speaking during a CNBC-moderated panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Mnuchin said dollar weakness in the short term was ‘not a concern of mine,’ before adding: ‘In the longer term, we fundamentally believe in the strength of the dollar.’”

After the dramatic cut in corporate tax rates and myriad measures seen as benefiting the wealthy, some argue that Trump populism is a ruse. But now we see a 2018 push on tariffs, aggressive trade negotiation, U.S. capital investment and higher wages meant to rebuild our manufacturing base to the benefit of the American worker. Rather than the rich continuing to build wealth at the expense of the lowly worker, they can now grow wealth together. Is such a radical change even possible? Where are the losers?

January 24 – CNBC (Matt Clinch): “Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the U.S. is open for business and welcomed a weaker dollar, saying that it would benefit the country. Speaking at a press conference at the World Economic Forum…, he made a bid for investment into the U.S., saying the government was committed to growth of 3% or higher. ‘Obviously a weaker dollar is good for us as it relates to trade and opportunities,’ Mnuchin told reporters…, adding that the currency’s short term value is ‘not a concern of ours at all.’ ‘Longer term, the strength of the dollar is a reflection of the strength of the U.S. economy and the fact that it is and will continue to be the primary currency in terms of the reserve currency,’ he said.”

Surprisingly candid comments from our Treasury Secretary. And as much as he, the President and other administration officials work to “walk back” Wednesday’s comment, “obviously a weaker dollar is good for us” confirms what many had suspected. “America First” has a “beggar-thy-neighbor” currency devaluation component. A revitalized U.S. manufacturing sector will come at the expense of our trade partners and the holders of our debt.

I’ve posited in past CBBs that it would have been easier to implement the Trump agenda in a crisis backdrop. This requires revision: it would have been less risky to implement… Huge tax cuts at this late stage in the Bubble come with unexpected consequences, including those associated with stoking acutely speculative risk markets. There are major risks in feeding an investment boom now, following years of extraordinarily loose financial conditions and today’s 4.1% unemployment rate. It’s reckless running huge fiscal deficits at this late stage of a boom cycle – with federal debt having already inflated from $6.074 TN to $16.463 TN in less than ten years. And, this week, openly lauding the benefits of a weaker dollar with foreign holdings of U.S. debt securities at $11.370 TN (up 57% since the crisis!).

Mario Draghi’s rebuke was as swift as it was stern. The ECB’s Maestro well-appreciates that Mnuchin and the Trump folks are playing with fire. Global central bankers in concert have cultivated the perception that everything is well under control. No need to fret market liquidity, at least not in equities and bond markets. Currencies, well, that’s a whole different animal.

There are few matters that keep central bankers awake at night like the prospect of dislocation in the currency markets. These are massive markets, generally well-behaved but not easily controlled when they’re not. Disorderly selling of the dollar – with all the leveraged currency trades and unfathomable derivative exposures that have accumulated for decades and mushroomed since the crisis – now that’s lush habitat for the proverbial black swan.

The Dow gained another 545 points this week, bring 2018 gains (17 sessions) to 1,897 points. The S&P500 jumped 2.2%, as the dollar index declined 1.7%. Clearly, U.S. and global risk markets are fine with dollar devaluation. Heck, they’re delighted with the notion of concerted global currency devaluation. The sickly dollar will only pressure the ECB, BOJ and others to stay looser for even longer. What country these days feels comfortable with a strong currency? What could go wrong?

Does dollar weakness and attendant securities market froth pressure the Fed to pick up the pace of rate increases? Heaven forbid, might they actually come to the realization that they need to actually tighten monetary conditions. Beyond stock market Bubbles, the weakening dollar bolsters the case for an uptick in inflationary pressures. WTI crude is up a quick 9.5% y-t-d to $66.14. The GSCI commodities index has gained 4.7% in the first four weeks of the year. Heightened dollar vulnerability might also engender a consensus view within the global central bank community supportive of tighter U.S. monetary policy.

“Beggar-thy-neighbor” – not desperate depression-era measures, but amid economic/financial boom and record stock prices. Uncharted territory. Trapped in concerted reflationary monetary policymaking, global central bankers may be tempted to disregard ramifications of “America First.” This will unlikely be the case with foreign governments. And when do anxious governments begin to pressure their central banks against accommodating Team Trump ambitions? Beijing has already reminded the world of their prerogative to liquidate China’s Treasury hoard. Global markets remain confident that central banks have no option other than recycling dollars back into U.S. securities markets. Perhaps this is too complacent.

Crisis-period QE and zero rates evolved over years into “whatever it takes” open-ended QE, negative rates and egregious market manipulation. Global central bankers took control – and today have things fully under control. This market perception has been instrumental in the historic collapse in market volatility. Resulting readily available cheap market risk protection has incentivized historic risk-taking and today’s speculative melt-up market dynamic.

Historians may look back at Team Trump’s jaunt to chilly Davos as a pivotal juncture in global finance. Was it naivety, gall or a combination – or just typical of today’s overabundance of complacency? The U.S. Treasury Secretary – facing enormous fiscal deficits, rising rates, $16.5 TN of federal debt, a nervous bond market and suspicious foreign officials – openly advocating a weaker dollar.

There are certainly plenty of dollars in the world available to sell or hedge. What is the likelihood of dollar selling turning disorderly? One might look at several years of incredible ECB and BOJ “whatever it takes” liquidity creation and rate suppression (and interest-rate differentials you could drive a truck through) and ponder Friday’s closing prices of 1.24 for the euro and 108.58 for the dollar/yen. Those are two flashing warning signs of dollar vulnerability.

In all the euphoria, markets can be excused for presuming dollar weakness ensures a further delay in global rate normalization. Yet things turn quite interesting the day unruly currency markets begin indicating disorderly trading. The almighty central bankers might have little to offer. What if they intervene to no avail? This could prove the juncture when markets begin questioning the Indomitable Central Banks in Control thesis. The price of market “insurance” would begin to creep (or, not unlikely, spike) higher, and the availability of cheap risk protection would wane (possibly abruptly). In such a development, I would expect the more sophisticated market operators to begin (aggressively) pulling back on risk and leverage. Such a dynamic, especially after such a spectacular melt-up, would mark an important inflection point for market liquidity.

Ten-year Treasury yields were little changed on the week at 2.66%. Yet two-year yields rose five bps to 2.12% and five-year yields rose two bps to 2.47%. Global yields are on the move. German 10-year yields jumped six bps to a 13-month high 0.63%, and French yields gained seven bps to 0.91%. UK yields jumped 11 bps to 1.44%.

The dollar’s worst start to a year since 1987. Wildly speculative stock markets, rising bond yields, Fed rate hikes, dollar weakness and acrimony, and general currency market instability. Today’s backdrop recalls 1987, though with some important differences. The world has so much more debt these days. Global equities markets are so much bigger and interconnected – derivatives markets incredibly so. Did China even have a stock market in ’87?

Today’s central bank balance sheets would be unimaginable back in 1987. Markets certainly had much less faith in central bank liquidity backstops. 1987 had this exciting new financial product, “portfolio insurance.” 2017 has the continuation of this enchanting New Age notion that central banks insure all portfolios. The Great Irony of Contemporary Finance: years of extreme central bank inflationary measures ensured that global finance outgrew the capacity of central bank liquidity backstops.

January 25 – Wall Street Journal (Richard Barely): “Only a select few people can move foreign-exchange markets with a handful of words. U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and European Central Bank President Mario Draghi are two of them. Thursday they clashed, and the ECB clearly has a fight on its hands. The euro had already been rising against the dollar before Mr. Mnuchin’s comments in Davos Wednesday, that a weak dollar was helpful for trade, sent it even higher. Mr. Mnuchin’s apparent attempt Thursday to play down that comment didn’t reverse the trend. Mr. Draghi’s first-round defense proved insufficient.”

January 21 – Bloomberg: “China’s bad-loan data, which analysts and investors have long regarded to be understated, was thrown into question again after the banking regulator uncovered faked reporting at a local lender. Shanghai Pudong Development Bank Co., the nation’s ninth-largest lender, illegally lent 77.5 billion yuan ($12bn) over many years to 1,493 shell companies to take over bad loans at its Chengdu branch, the China Banking Regulatory Commission said… The branch, which had reported zero bad loans, inflated its earnings and faked other operational data to improve performance and evade compliance, the CBRC found.”

January 21 – Bloomberg: “For years, a branch of a mid-sized Chinese bank outshone rivals by reporting zero bad loans at a time others were struggling with rising soured debt. Financial indicators at Shanghai Pudong Development Bank Co..’s branch in the western Chengdu city were healthy, officials raised no red flags, and Fitch Ratings upgraded the parent last July citing tighter support and supervision by local authorities. Unknown to most, however, regulators had been probing the lender for a fraud that may reverberate across China’s financial industry. ‘It is not just about Pudong Bank,’ analysts at Guangfa Securities Co., led by Ni Jun, wrote… ‘The underlying issue is that the market may conduct a systemic review and re-rating on the bad loan ratios of those highly-leveraged Chinese banks that had gone through a round of balance-sheet expansion.’”

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