Reasons for U.S. Dollar’s Strength

        

This blog is published by Andy
Waldock. Andy Waldock is a trader, analyst, broker and asset manager.
Therefore, Andy Waldock may have positions for himself, his family, or, his
clients in any market discussed. The blog is meant for educational purposes and
to develop a dialogue among those with an interest in the commodity markets.
The commodity markets employ a high degree of leverage and may not be suitable
for all investors. There is substantial risk in investing in futures.

It has been noted that the U.S. Dollar makes a high or a low for the year in January approximately 2/3 of the time. Some prominent market mavens are attributing the Dollar’s strength to “strong cyclical forces at play” while others believe that the Dollar’s time as the currency of last resort is nigh. Both positions appear, to me, to be based on more on rhetoric and black magic than on sound fundamental analysis. Those of you who’ve asked me about the Dollar have gotten the same response from me since the commodity futures market’s bottom in December. I don’t understand the Dollar’s strength. I can advise on technical levels and pattern recognition but, I don’t have a fundamental thesis to frame my trading in this market at this time. The following article by John Mauldin of www.frontlinethoughts.com has provided me with a framework I can wrap my head around. I hope it helps you as much as it has myself.Andy.

The Risk in Europe

I mentioned last
week that European banks are at significant risk. I want to follow up on that
point, as it is very important. Eastern Europe has borrowed an estimated $1.7
trillion, primarily from Western European banks. And much of Eastern Europe is
already in a deep recession bordering on depression. A great deal of that $1.7
trillion is at risk, especially the portion that is in Swiss francs. It is a
story that could easily be as big as the US subprime problem.

In Poland, as an
example, 60% of mortgages are in Swiss francs. When times are good and
currencies are stable, it is nice to have a low-interest Swiss mortgage. And as
a requirement for joining the euro currency union, Poland has been required to
keep its currency stable against the euro. This gave borrowers comfort that they
could borrow at low interest in francs or euros, rather than at much higher
local rates.

But in an echo of
teaser-rate subprimes here in the US, there is a problem. Along came the
synchronized global recession and large Polish current-account trade deficits,
which were three times those of the US in terms of GDP, just to give us some
perspective. Of course, if you are not a reserve currency this is going to
bring some pressure to bear. And it did. The Polish zloty has basically dropped
in half compared to the Swiss franc. That means if you are a mortgage holder,
your house payment just doubled. That same story is repeated all over the
Baltics and Eastern Europe.

Austrian banks
have lent $289 billion (230 billion euros) to Eastern Europe. That is 70% of Austrian
GDP. Much of it is in Swiss francs they borrowed from Swiss banks. Even a 10%
impairment (highly optimistic) would bankrupt the Austrian financial system,
says the Austrian finance minister, Joseph Proll. In the US we speak of banks
that are too big to be allowed to fail. But the reality is that we could
nationalize them if we needed to do so. (And for the record, I favor
nationalization and swift privatization. We cannot afford a repeat of Japan’s
zombie banks.)

The problem is
that in Europe there are many banks that are simply too big to save. The size
of the banks in terms of the GDP of the country in which they are domiciled is
all out of proportion. For my American readers, it would be as if the bank
bailout package were in excess of $14 trillion (give or take a few trillion).
In essence, there are small countries which have very large banks (relatively
speaking) that have gone outside their own borders to make loans and have done
so at levels of leverage which are far in excess of the most leveraged US
banks. The ability of the “host” countries to nationalize their banks
is simply not there. They are going to have to have help from larger countries.
But as we will see below, that help is problematical.

Western European
banks have been very aggressive in lending to emerging market countries
worldwide. Almost 75% of an estimated $4.9 trillion of loans outstanding are to
countries that are in deep recessions. Plus, according to the IMF, they are 50%
more leveraged than US banks.

Today the euro
rallied back to $1.26 based upon statements from German authorities that were
interpreted as a potential willingness to help out non-German (in particular,
Austrian) banks.

However, this
more sobering note from Strategic Energy was sent to me by a reader. It nicely
sums up my concerns:

“It is East
Europe that is blowing up right now. Erik Berglof, EBRD’s chief economist, told
me the region may need €400bn in help to cover loans and prop up the credit
system. Europe’s governments are making matters worse. Some are pressuring
their banks to pull back, undercutting subsidiaries in East Europe. Athens has
ordered Greek banks to pull out of the Balkans.

“The sums
needed are beyond the limits of the IMF, which has already bailed out Hungary,
Ukraine, Latvia, Belarus, Iceland, and Pakistan — and Turkey next — and is
fast exhausting its own $200bn (€155bn) reserve. We are nearing the point where
the IMF may have to print money for the world, using arcane powers to issue
Special Drawing Rights. Its $16bn rescue of Ukraine has unravelled. The country
— facing a 12% contraction in GDP after the collapse of steel prices — is
hurtling towards default, leaving Unicredit, Raffeisen and ING in the lurch.
Pakistan wants another $7.6bn. Latvia’s central bank governor has declared his
economy “clinically dead” after it shrank 10.5% in the fourth
quarter. Protesters have smashed the treasury and stormed parliament.

“‘This is
much worse than the East Asia crisis in the 1990s,’ said Lars Christensen, at
Danske Bank. ‘There are accidents waiting to happen across the region, but the
EU institutions don’t have any framework for dealing with this. The day they
decide not to save one of these one countries will be the trigger for a massive
crisis with contagion spreading into the EU.’ Europe is already in deeper
trouble than the ECB or EU leaders ever expected. Germany contracted at an
annual rate of 8.4% in the fourth quarter. If Deutsche Bank is correct, the
economy will have shrunk by nearly 9% before the end of this year. This is the sort
of level that stokes popular revolt.

“The
implications are obvious. Berlin is not going to rescue Ireland, Spain, Greece
and Portugal as the collapse of their credit bubbles leads to rising defaults,
or rescue Italy by accepting plans for EU “union bonds” should the
debt markets take fright at the rocketing trajectory of Italy’s public debt
(hitting 112pc of GDP next year, just revised up from 101pc — big change), or
rescue Austria from its Habsburg adventurism. So we watch and wait as the lethal
brush fires move closer. If one spark jumps across the eurozone line, we will
have global systemic crisis within days. Are the firemen ready?”

While Rome Burns

I hope the writer
is wrong. But the ECB is dithering while Rome burns. (Or at least their banking
system is — Italy’s banks have large exposure to Eastern Europe through
Austrian subsidiaries.) They need to bring rates down and figure out how to
move into quantitative easing. Europe is at far greater risk than the US.

Great Britain and
Europe as a whole are down about 6% in GDP on an annualized basis. The Bank
Credit Analyst sent the next graph out to their public list, and I reproduce it
here. (www.bcaresearch.com)
In another longer report, they note that the UK, Ireland, Denmark, and
Switzerland have the greatest risk of widespread bank nationalization (outside
of Iceland). The full report is quite sobering. The countries on the bottom of
the list are also in danger of having their credit ratings downgraded.

Aggregate Sovereign Credit Risk

This has the
potential to be a real crisis, far worse than in the US. Without concerted
action on the part of the ECB and the European countries that are relatively
strong, much of Europe could fall further into what would feel like a
depression. There is a problem, though. Imagine being a politician in Germany,
for instance. Your GDP is down by 8% last quarter. Unemployment is rising.
Budgets are under pressure, as tax collections are down. And you are going to
be asked to vote in favor of bailing out (pick a small country)? What will the
voters who put you into office think?

We are going to
find out this year whether the European Union is like the Three Musketeers. Are
they “all for one and one for all?” or is it every country for
itself? My bet (or hope) is that it is the former. Dissolution at this point
would be devastating for all concerned, and for the world economy at large.
Many of us in the US don’t think much about Europe or the rest of the world,
but without a healthy Europe, much of our world trade would vanish.

However, getting
all the parties to agree on what to do will take some serious leadership, which
does not seem to be in evidence at this point. The US almost waited too long to
respond to our crisis, but we had the “luxury” of only needing to get
a few people to agree as to the nature of the problems (whether they were wrong
or right is beside the point). And we have a central bank that could act
decisively.

As I understand
the European agreement, that situation does not exist in Europe. For the ECB to
print money as the US and the UK (and much of the non-EU developed world) will
do, takes agreement from all the member countries, and right now it appears the
German and Dutch governments are resisting such an idea.

As I write this
(on a plane on my way to Orlando) German finance minister Peer Steinbruck has
said it would be intolerable to let fellow EMU members fall victim to the
global financial crisis. “We have a number of countries in the eurozone
that are clearly getting into trouble on their payments,” he said.
“Ireland is in a very difficult situation.

“The
euro-region treaties don’t foresee any help for insolvent states, but in
reality the others would have to rescue those running into difficulty.”

That is a hopeful
sign. Ireland is indeed in dire straits, and is particularly vulnerable as it
is going to have to spend a serious percentage of its GDP on bailing out its
banks.

It is not clear
how it will all play out. But there is real risk of Europe dragging the world
into a longer, darker night. Their banks not only have exposure to our US
foibles, much of which has already been written off, but now many banks will
have to contend with massive losses from emerging-market loans, which could be
even larger than the losses stemming from US problems. Plus, they are more
leveraged. (This was definitely a topic of “Conversation” this
morning when I chatted with Nouriel Roubini. See more below.)

The Euro Back to Parity? Really?

I wrote over six
years ago, when the euro was below $1, that I thought the euro would rise to
over $1.50 (it went even higher) and then back to parity in the middle of the
next decade. I thought the decline would be due to large European government
deficits brought about by pension and health care promises to retirees, and those
problems do still loom.

It may be that
the current problems will push the euro to parity much sooner, possibly this
year. While that will be nice if you want to vacation in Europe, it will have
serious side effects on international trade. It clearly makes European
exporters more competitive with the rest of the world, and especially the US.
It also means that goods coming from Asia will cost more in Europe, unless
Asian countries decide to devalue their currencies to maintain an ability to
sell into Europe, which of course will bring howls from the US about currency
manipulation. It is going to put pressure on governments to enact some form of
trade protectionism, which would be devastating to the world economy.

Large and swift currency
swings are inherently disruptive. We are seeing volatility in the currency
markets unlike anything I have witnessed. I hope we do not see a precipitous
fall in value of the euro. It will be good for no one. It is a strange world
indeed when the US is having such a deep series of problems, the Fed and
Treasury are talking about printing a few trillion here and a few trillion
there, and at the very same time we see the dollar AND gold rising in value.