Why the US$ has been rallying and why it could soon stop

January 15, 2015

In early October of last year I published an article (an excerpt from a TSI commentary) dealing with why the US$ was rallying. The point I tried to get across in this article was that rather than the main cause of the euro’s weakness — and the Dollar Index’s associated strength — being the fear that the ECB was going to stimulate (meaning: inflate the money supply) more aggressively, the main cause was the fear that the ECB would be unable to stimulate aggressively enough to sustain the bull markets in European stocks and bonds.

The argument I made at that time was based on the strong positive correlation over many years between the euro and the performance of European equities relative to US equities (as indicated by the VGK/SPX ratio). Specifically, the fact that relative strength in European equities invariably went with a rising euro and relative weakness in European equities invariably went with a falling euro implied that bullish influences on European equities would also tend to be bullish for the euro. At a time when inflation fears are low, nothing is more bullish for the broad stock market than monetary inflation.

Consequently, it was clear to me then, and it is just as clear to me now, that if the market starts to believe that the ECB will have greater ‘success’ in its efforts to pump more money, then the euro will rally on the back of relative strength in European equities.

Here are charts (one long-term and one short-term) that illustrate the relationship between currency performance and relative equity performance that I’m talking about.



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2015 Surprises

January 13, 2015

Here is a slightly-modified excerpt from a commentary posted at TSI last week:

Following the lead of Doug Kass I am now going to present a list of financial-market surprises for the year ahead. These are events/developments that are expected by very few market participants and commentators, but in my view have either a greater than 50% chance of happening (in the cases of surprises 1 to 6) or at least a high-enough probability of happening to be worthy of serious consideration (in the cases of surprises 7 to 9). Here’s the list:

1) The Fed continues to make noises about ‘normalising’ monetary policy, but ends up doing almost nothing. At most, there is a single 0.25% rate hike. One reason is the fear that economic weakness elsewhere in the world, primarily the euro-zone, will weigh on the US economy. Another reason is the absence of an obvious “price inflation” problem. A third reason is the Fed’s unwavering commitment to the absurd Keynesian idea that an economy can be strengthened by punishing savers.

2) US Treasury yields defy the majority view by ending the year flat-to-lower. More specifically, the 30-year T-Bond yield is roughly unchanged over the course of the year, but yields decline in the middle and at the short end of the curve. Of all the Treasury securities, the 5-year T-Note experiences the largest decline in yield as traders belatedly realise that the Fed will not be taking any significant steps towards ‘policy normalisation’ during 2015 or 2016.

3) Gold defies the numerous calls for a decline to US$1000 or lower. It does no worse than test its 2014 low during the first half of the year and commences a major upward trend by the middle of the year. As is always the case, gold’s bullish trend is driven by declining confidence in central banking and rising concern about ‘tail risk’. A related surprise is that the gold-mining indices outperform gold bullion.

4) Despite superficially lousy fundamentals, concerns about future supply reductions/disruptions cause oil to commence a cyclical bull market during the second half of the year.

5) The recovery in the oil price comes too late to prevent widespread debt default and bankruptcy within the US oil-and-gas industry. Due to the many knock-on effects of large-scale retrenchment within this industry, including slowdowns in all the businesses that indirectly benefited from the flood of money channeled into the drilling of shale deposits, it becomes clear that the collapse in the oil price was a net-negative for the US economy.

6) The Yen ends 2015 more than 10% higher than it ended 2014 as the Yen supply continues to grow at a comparatively slow annualised rate of less than 5% and carry-traders exit their positions in reaction to increasing risk aversion.

7) The S&P500 never closes above its December-2014 peak and generally works its way lower throughout the year.

8) The Russian currency (the Ruble) and stock market (RSX) bottom-out during the first half of the year and end 2015 with net gains.

9) The copper price trades below US$2.30/pound during the first half of the year within the context of a deflation scare and downwardly-revised forecasts for global economic growth.

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Liquidate Everything!

January 12, 2015

In his memoirs, US President Herbert Hoover says that he received the following advice from Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon after the stock market crash of 1929:

Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate. It will purge the rottenness out of the system. High costs of living and high living will come down. People will work harder, live a more moral life. Values will be adjusted, and enterprising people will pick up the wrecks from less competent people.” According to Hoover, Mellon “insisted that, when the people get an inflation brainstorm, the only way to get it out of their blood is to let it collapse” and that “even a panic was not altogether a bad thing.

In other words, if Hoover’s recollection was correct (it probably was), Mellon’s advice was for the government to stay out of the way and let the markets clear.

Paul Krugman and many others have blamed the course of action recommended by Mellon for the severity of the Great Depression of the 1930s. The problem with this line of argument is that Hoover strenuously disagreed with Mellon’s advice and chose not only to ignore it, but to do the exact opposite!

Hoover was an engineer by education who believed that the economy could be managed as if it were a giant engineering project. He was an aggressively interventionist president who thought that the economic pain that the stock market crash suggested was coming could be lessened by, among other things, preventing prices from falling and replacing private-sector demand with public-sector demand. He was a consistent critic of free (unregulated) markets and a relentless advocate for a greatly expanded role for government. He was actually a pre-Keynes Keynesian (Keynes was a prominent figure in economics at the time, but he hadn’t yet written the book that would become the bible for government economic meddling).

As an aside, during the 1932 presidential election campaign FD Roosevelt lambasted Hoover for being fiscally imprudent. In fact, FDR went as far as describing the Hoover Administration as “the most reckless and extravagant…of any peacetime government anywhere, any time.” However, after taking over the Presidency FDR quickly forgot almost everything he had said during the election campaign and greatly extended the interventionist approach initiated by his predecessor.

I strongly believe that Mellon’s advice was sound, but the point I want to make right now is that this advice cannot logically be blamed for worsening the economic downturn of the 1930s, regardless of whether or not it was sound. This is because the advice was not followed.

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Hong Kong in 1938

January 7, 2015

Here is some fascinating video footage showing Hong Kong in 1938.

The narration sounds like it was produced by the British Ministry of Propaganda and some of the narrator’s comments are patronising to the point of being funny. This mouthful is my favourite:

Under tolerant and wise British rule, with willing oriental assistance, has grown a modern Western city in an Eastern setting, where more than a million contented Chinese dwell in harmony, merging their ancient civilisation, culture and manners with those of the 20 thousand Europeans who guide or minister to them.

Video source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hIHTrmz4hTI

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