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.
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