What can the stronger US dollar tell us?

If the US uses this window of opportunity to do major reforms, the strength of the dollar would simply reinforce the view that America is back.

Andrew Sheng

Andrew Sheng

The Korea Herald


November 10, 2022

SEOUL – As the Fed raised interest rates by 75 basis points on Wednesday for the fourth time this year, financial markets are beginning to shake. Basically, the interest rate hikes in response to higher inflation is a reversal of nearly two decades of generally declining global interest rates, higher asset bubbles and not surprisingly, anemic growth.

The Bank for International Settlements has just issued a paper looking at the policy implications of exchange rate swings. The US dollar index has broadly appreciated 10 percent against the other currencies since the beginning of the year, 15.2 percent since its recent low in June 2021 and 46.8 percent since its 12-year low in August 2011. The yen dropped to a recent low of 150 against the dollar on Oct. 20 and Mr. Yen (professor Sakakibara, former Japanese vice minister for international finance) hinted that the yen may go to 170.

The BIS attributes three factors to the appreciation in the dollar: an improvement in US terms of trade with higher oil prices that impact on Europe and Japan as oil importers (concomitantly with US emerging as oil exporter); divergence in monetary policy stance (interest rate differentials), as the Fed is more aggressive in raising rates than European Central Bank or Bank of Japan; and flight to quality due to war and fears of recessions.

The Chinese have a saying that the bum pushes the brain — your point of view depends on where you sit. Economists tend to look at prices (from supply and demand) and flows, which are changes in stock (or balance sheet) over time, because these are the most readily available numbers. However, if you look at the earth from 10,000 meters up, you see broadly the stock position, whereas flows are microblip changes from that height. At ground level, you only see flows, because the big stocks do not appear to change that fast.

Reality requires us to look at both stock and flows, which is why we must examine the balance sheet effect of price and flow changes. The Japanese were the first to understand the process of aging and balance sheet effects. After the 1980s asset bubble reversals (arising from the rapid appreciation of the yen versus the dollar), Japan went through a balance sheet deflation, meaning that Japanese companies and households spent the next three decades rebuilding their balance sheets aided by near zero interest rates.

With the big swings in the yen rate, Japanese gross domestic product in yen terms have been roughly flat but slightly growing, but in US dollar terms have declined from a peak of $6.2 trillion in 2012 to $4.9 trillion at the end of 2021. However, in terms of net international investment position (the amount of net foreign assets minus foreign liabilities), Japan has built up a formidable war chest of $3.6 trillion, or 75.8 percent of GDP.

In other words, in preparation for aging population plus slower domestic growth, Japan shifted her financial assets abroad on a massive scale, so that depreciation in yen would mean higher income and wealth effect from foreign earnings.

The architect of this transformation is Gov. Kuroda of the Bank of Japan. Under his watch, BOJ today owns more than half of the Japanese government bonds and continues to buy JGBs to maintain a flat zero yield curve, under what is called yield curve control.

In September and October this year, the Japanese Ministry of Finance already spent 9.1 trillion yen ($61.9 billion) to slow the yen’s depreciation. Expect more to come.

How does the strengthening US dollar impact global balance sheets?

The US net liability position has deteriorated to $18.1 trillion at the end of 2021, of which Japan alone accounted for 19.7 percent and East Asia surplus economies (Japan, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore) accounted for 55.8 percent. Europe as a whole is square, having a net investment liability of 2 percent of GDP in 2010 to currently negligible (0.2 percent) net liability. The Northern European surpluses are cancelled by Southern European liabilities.

As the BIS analysis shows, US dollar strengthening is generally bad for the world economy because higher US dollar interest rates tighten trade finance liquidity and impacts on financial stability on those sovereign and corporate borrowers in US dollar. As the dollar strengthens, while euro and Japanese interest rates become cheap in relative terms, the carry trade will increase, meaning you borrow euro and yen to invest in dollar assets, paying cheaper interest rates and expecting the exchange rates to depreciate. This accelerates US dollar strengthening until it’s time to take profits. The carry trade was instrumental to financial accidents in both the 1997 and 2008 crashes.

From a macroperspective, the US economy is sitting pretty, with imports cheaper due to strong dollar, but how long can the dollar continue to strengthen? The global rich class loves higher US dollars because it protects their interests, but worry that global liquidity tightening will result in a global deflation. When it begins to weaken, expect no loyalty from the rich.

This balance sheet view shows that exchange rate shifts reflect fundamental big picture structural changes. And the strength of the US dollar matters in the geopolitical power game.

If the US uses this window of opportunity to do major reforms, the strength of the dollar would simply reinforce the view that America is back. If the markets perceive that the macroeconomic management is flawed, like what happened to sterling in September, then the markets can be brutal in punishing such mistakes.

Which is why I am watching if and when BOJ monetary policy reverses course. That is when small waves may signal tsunamis ahead.

By Andrew Sheng

Andrew Sheng writes on global issues from an Asian perspective. The views are entirely his own. — Ed.

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