Sunday, March 7, 2010

Economics 07/03/2010: A long term view of the currency markets

With the euro unsteady against the dollar (post-10%+ drop in recent months from its highs over 1.50 in December 2009 to 1.35) there is a question to be asked - can dollar and euro act as reasonable hedges for each other. In other words, should euro-overweight Europeans hold dollars, while dollar-overweight Americans, Asians and Latin American hold euros? In my view – neither.

This view is formed by my belief that both currencies will continue to fluctuate along a short-term weakening of the euro rend, followed by an equally volatile, but flat trend in the medium term, moving into a dollar appreciation trend in the long run.

Why? Because two economies fundamentals are currently very similar, and only the long term view affords a potential for the US to pull away from the structurally sicker European partners.

In absolute terms, the EU27 is the largest ‘economy’ in the world – some 16.2% greater in terms of PPP-adjusted GDP than the US ($14.2 trillion) economy. But the eurozone itself is equivalent to just 74% of the US total output, despite being 10 million ahead of the US in population terms. Taken as such, one can argue that on average, the euro currency and the US dollar cores are roughly the same.

Both had pretty tough time through the downturn. 2009 US GDP was down 2.7% outperforming Eurozone where GDP fell 4.2%. Unemployment is running pretty much in line, but US unemployment is usually more willing to subside once recovery begins. On financial sector side, euro area has taken roughly 40% of the required corrections of the banks balancesheets as of Q4 2009, while the US banks have taken 60%.

Inflation in the US has been running ahead of the EU16 (2.7% as opposed to 0.6% in 2009). But this inflation differential means two things – it reflects differences in the timing and the size of fiscal and monetary interventions and it reflects the effects of devaluation of the dollar. US recovery has begun, while EU16 is still languishing at around 0% growth and there are growing signs of a possible double dip hitting Berlin, Paris, Rome and Madrid, not to mention the peripherals.

Greeks are the star performers when it comes to the circus of fiscal recklessness in the Northern Hemisphere: 12.2% deficit (more likely closer to 13%). Last week’s plan to trim 2% off that number is, assuming it actually comes into being, equivalent to being 5.875% short of the cost of financing the Greek debt annually. In other words, Greek debt is priced at 6.3% per annum. It stands at 125% of GDP, which means that 7.875% of the GDP is spent every year by the Greeks on interest payments on the debt alone. It will take Greece 4 years of consecutive 2% cuts to just cancel out the existent interest on the debt.

For Ireland, the figures are hardly more pleasant. 11.6% deficit planned for in 2010 Budget (a net cut of just 0.1% on 2009 figure) and with our debt (ex-Nama) heading for €90 billion (over €100 billion with recapitalization factored in) or 56% of expected 2010 GDP, at the latest yield of 5%, means that our debt burden is currently taking up 2.8-3.2% of GDP annually. At the current rates of budgetary adjustments (per Budget 2010), it will take Ireland Inc over 30 years to bring the budget into offsetting the interest costs on the current debt.

Ok, I hear your protests, the actual cut was closer to €3.3 billion or 2.04% of GDP, but further deterioration in expenditure due to social welfare and unemployment increases has scaled this back to 0.1%. Fine – at 2.04% cuts, it will take Ireland 1.5 years to offset the interest bill. Factoring in Nama and expected deficits in 2010-2014, 3 years of consecutive cuts of the same magnitude as Budget 2010 would do the job.

The important thing here, of course, is to remember that in both cases (Greece and Ireland) these cuts will not be denting the deficit at all, just offsetting the rising interest rate bill. And we made no assumptions about the direction of the bonds yields.

But Greece, Ireland and the rest of APIIGS aside, the EU and euro area are fiscally marginally better than the US. The EU16 average deficit will be 6.9% of GDP in 2010 – some 3.7 percentage points below that of the US. Similarly for the debt levels: euro area is currently at 84% of GDP, rising to 88% in 2011 and over 100% by 2014. In the US, current debt is already at 87% of GDP and will rise to 100% by 2012.

Of course, there are three things worth mentioning. EU forecasts are done by the EU Commission with historic accuracy record of tea leafs readers. US forecasts are done by the US Budget Office, with rather decent forecasting powers. The US is more willing to deflate out of its debt problems than the EU16.

Finally, the numbers above do not reflect the fact that there is a higher risk of a double dip in the euro area. Nor do they reflect the fact that EU16 banks are still facing severe liquidity and capital shortages amidst untaken writedowns.

In other words, expect euro area deficit and debt to go up erasing the difference between the US and EU in fiscal terms.

So what really perpetuates US dollar vastly more powerful position in the reserve vaults of the banks worldwide is the legacy. Central banks simply cannot unwind their massive holdings of the dollar without destroying their own balancesheets. This process will have to be stretched over time.

The thing is – with the latest revelations concerning Greek financial mechanics in the past and the EU’s inability to face the reality, majority of the central banks around the world which might have started reducing their dollar exposure in the recent past are now reversing that strategy. Going into dollar became fashionable once again.

But the dollar is not a safe heaven in the medium term. And neither is, per above, the euro. One analyst recently described the current shift back into the dollar as “exchanging your ticket on the Titanic for a ride on the Hindenburg”.

So really, folks, last time this happened – parallel inflation in the euro and the dollar and economic weakening of both, with public finances coming under pressure – back in 2007, the markets response was an age-old one. Gold and commodities went up, debt went down, stocks went out of the window. It looks like we are in 2006 once again, sans economic boom, but with a new rebalancing. I would expect gold to continue firming up, commodities to lag behind on the same trend and stocks and FX bouncing violently at the bottom.

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