The ‘Obama’ Dollar Rises…

Over the past few weeks, I had several discussions with some friends of mine to try to understand and clarify the US Dollar ‘pause’ we have seen since the middle of March. A dovish stance from the Federal Reserve, which obviously led to a status quo at the June FOMC meeting, may have halted the Dollar bulls, but it seems to me that the market is getting more and more confident about this year’s lift-off.

Based on the forecasts made in June, the Fed Staff expect policymakers to raise the Fed funds rate to 35bps by the end of the fourth quarter of 2015, which implies a one quarter-point hike this year (chances of an initial move at the September meeting stand roughly at 60%).

Quick recap’ on the macro figures

Even though the unemployment rate hit a 7-year low at 5.3% in June (with a strong NFP at 223K) and Q2 GDP came in at 2.3% (above the 2% ‘target’, but still below Wall Street’s consensus estimate of 2.5%), the rest of the figures and the overall macro/geopolitical situation both don’t look quite good. US inflation has average 0% since the beginning of the year (0.1% YoY in June), consumer spending YoY declined for the third consecutive month and both business fixed investments and net exports stayed soft. On a broader scale, the commodity-meltdown continues as demand from China may slow even further on the back of a weak manufacturing activity (Chinese PMI fell to 47.8 in July, its two-year low). For instance, NYMEX WTI September futures are trading near levels not seen since March, with September contract at $46.30 per barrel.

In addition, even though the Economic and Financial Affairs Council (ECOFIN) approved a 7.1bn-euro bridge loan to Greece last month (July 17th) given through the EFSM so that the country could meet its short-term obligations including a 3.5bn-euro payment to the ECB on July 20, Athens has no money left. That is problematic as a second big 3.2bn-euro payment is coming on August 20 to the ECB and there are talks that they may miss it as the bailout timeline is ‘unrealistic’.

Chinese economic slowdown, low oil prices, deflation and Greek payments are all subjects that I try to follow closely as it is the topics I believe that US policymakers are watching as well. However, I think this time the Fed officials are quite ready for a lift-off in September, and now I have been questioning myself about the US Dollar rally.

The Dollar Rallies…

The chart below shows the three dollar rallies that occurred since the collapse of the Bretton Woods system. The first big one is the Reagan dollar rally in the early 80s, fueled by the tight monetary policy. As a result of the second oil shock in 1979, chairman Volker orchestrated a series of interest rate increases that took the federal funds target from 10 to nearly 20 percent. If the Euro had existed then, the single currency would have depreciated by roughly 60%. The rally was eventually halted in September 1985 by the Plaza Accord signed by five governments to depreciate the US Dollar in relation to the Japanese Yen and the Deutsche Mark.

The Clinton Dollar rally started in the mid 90s fueled by the US Tech bubble and capital inflows into the US equity market in addition to the US government running federal surpluses. This surge brought the Euro down to 0.8230 against the greenback and USDJPY was trading at a high of JPY135 at the end of the rally (late 2001).

The recent Obama rally has started in early July last year as a result of monetary policy diverge between the US and the rest of the World. The commodity meltdown will continue to weigh on commodity currencies and especially on the Dollar-Bloc (CAD, AUD and NZD), as Greece will continue to make the headlines until Bailout#3 is eventually agreed.

As you can see on the chart below, I added a downtrend line that was broken in the beginning of the year. The US Dollar index hit a high of 100.80 in mid-March before its March-May consolidation. It looks to me that the greenback is gradually recovering from its quick contraction.

DXY avec MA

Source: Reuters

Despite a low volatile market at the moment, I am convinced that the US Dollar will gain strength in the end of this second semester. I will try to add a currency-detailed article by the end of the week with my new levels on the main currency pairs.

Quick thoughts ahead of the Fed’s minutes…

Last month (October 8th), while many investors were quite confident on the US Dollar strength momentum, the minutes of the FOMC’s September 16-17 policy meeting clearly showed us a message from US policymakers.

If you ask me if we see a stronger dollar in the LT against most of the currencies, we would answer yes and without any doubt. we think the Fed is comfortable with a Dollar appreciation, however we strongly believe they want the process to be slow and gradual. Despite strong recent fundamentals (another NFP above the 200K level in October for the 9th consecutive time, an annual 3.5% first Q3 GDP estimate, ISM Manufacturing PMI still above 50, Housing Start fluctuating around 1mio for the past year…), global economic issues will weigh on US policymakers this time.

Let’s start with the first issue: the decline in oil prices. December Crude Oil WTI futures contract (CLZ14) is down $30 since end-of-June’s high, now trading below the $75 level. While we mentioned in one of our previous article that the decline in oil prices will be problematic for a lot of OPEC countries (see article Oil Breakeven Prices), it is now entering into critical levels even for the US. We heard and read that low oil prices could be seen as a stimulus for consumers, however it is now at levels hurting US shale production. According to some experts, most shale oil fields breakeven is seen between $70 and $75 per barrel (see chart below from Barclays Research).


(Source: Barclays)

 As a reminder, the US, now producing around 8.5 million barrels per day (8.65mio in August 2014 according to the Energy Information Administration), was expected to surpass Russia within the next 10 years and grow its production by 35% to approximately 11.5mio barrels per day (see chart below from the Wall Street Journal).


(Source: Wall Street Journal)

Therefore, if prices continue to fell, the party could end earlier than expected. In addition, lower oil prices will add pressure on inflation expectations and the 2-percent target that the Fed is watching desperately. Important figure to watch tomorrow, CPI inflation is expected to remain steady at 1.7% in November. Any print below that would create a bit of US Dollar weakness as traders will start to lose credibility on the quantitative definition of ‘considerable time’.

Speaking of disinflationary pressures, let me go to the second issue: Dollar strength. Back in the minutes, Fed officials mentioned that they saw ‘rising dollar as a risk to exports and growth’. At that time, the USD index was trading at a 4-year high above the 86 level, and up 8.5% approximately since July low of 79.78. Today, the index is trading at even higher levels (87.60), thanks to the BoJ and the Yen development and EM meltdown. We saw that September US trade balance printed its biggest deficit since April at $43bn (vs. $40.2bn consensus), up from $40bn the previous month, due to a decline in exports (down 1.5%). In our opinion, ‘Dollar strength’ will be one of the topics tonight, therefore we could see some dollar weakness after the release. In addition, Dollar strength will also weigh on inflation expectations in the US (we don’t think the inflation effect of dollar appreciation is negligible, especially couple with lower oil prices).

Therefore, we see a bit of disappointment this evening, and we will encourage some of the US Dollar bulls to cut some of their long positions. The Euro and especially the British pound could recover from their recent losses, technical resistances are seen at 1.2670 and 1.5800 respectively.