One of the features of financial markets since early summer has been a decline in the value of the dollar against many currencies, and with it, an especially interesting acceleration in the price of gold. In addition to the usual professional market analysis about the dollar’s movement, this has led to speculation that it might be the beginning of the end of the dollar’s pre-eminence.
Having spent far too much of my professional life as a supposed currency expert, I reiterate something I learnt early on: the foreign exchange business sometimes grants an analyst their 15 minutes of fame, but no expert is a match for the millions who participate in this huge global market all day long. But I spent over 30 years in the financial markets, the vast majority in the hubbub of the forex market. And along the journey, I think I learnt a few tricks of the trade.
At the core of trying to answer questions about the dollar, I learnt a long time ago that there are two entirely separate questions, one of which has two subsections, about the dollar. Firstly, there is the question about the use of the dollar. Will it continue to dominate the world’s financial system as the most widely accepted medium of exchange?
This is not at all the same issue as the dollar’s day-to-day performance against other currencies. This is the second question, which is almost definitely the most pertinent one to what has happened during the summer. How the dollar’s value moves against other currencies is driven by a structural, or a valuation component, and a cyclical component. Each can be analysed separately, and if you were daft enough to devote the years I did to the process, you can combine the two, to have a dynamically adjusted fair value, persuading yourself at least that such an approach combines all available information at any point in time.
In terms of valuation, the most common approach is so-called purchasing power parity, which holds that a currency, in equilibrium, will ultimately reflect the difference in prices between two countries. If inflation is persistently higher in the US than in the eurozone, then the equilibrium value of the dollar will decline over time. I developed my own version of equilibrium currency rates, as it seemed to me in the real world, that the real inflation adjusted value of a currency was not stable, and that it moved over time. This was a reflection of productivity differentials between two countries. I christened it GSDEER: ‘the Goldman Sachs Dynamic Equilibrium Real Exchange Rate’ when I joined the firm in 1995.
What I learned is that when a currency is more than two standard deviations away from its fair value, it makes a huge amount of sense to watch closely, and when the momentum changes, it is worth going with this trend reversal. The momentum can change based on a change in the forces that have driven the currency away from its fair value, although it can be often easier to detect simply by watching the change in price.
One of the things that has frustrated currency participants over the past decade, with the exception of the Swiss franc and the pound, is that other major currencies have not been that far away from their fair value against the dollar or each other. Even during the dollar’s rise in recent years, including the period up to the summer, while it had clearly become overvalued, with the possible exception of the pound, it hadn’t become more than two standard deviations above its own fair value. In this regard, I have believed that one might be on the lookout for a chance to buy the pound against the dollar, and perhaps against the yen.
The cyclical component of a currency’s movement around its conceptual equilibrium can perhaps best be captured in the nominal interest rate adjusted for inflation expectations. I persuaded myself that the actual spot exchange rate of the dollar on any one day should be close to the adjusted GSDEER, and if it was not, then it would be useful for traders.
The dollar had become more interesting pre-COVID, as it appeared to have risen notably against many currencies, including the euro. And in this regard, the dollar was highly susceptible, and has turned out to be actually vulnerable, to a change in the state of the US and euro area economies. Now that the Federal Reserve has returned to extremely expansive monetary policy, and with it, lower real interest rates, a dollar decline seemed pretty inevitable.
At current prices, on 26 August, the dollar still seems modestly expensive compared to dynamically adjusted fair value. The dollar decline could persist. In the late 1980s and mid 1990s, the dollar fell to very low levels and became very undervalued — this tended to coincide with widespread talk about the dollar’s preeminence, which turned out to be, at least for that era, wrong. And I do share the views of some people who believe, as a result of US policies, conditions are more conducive to a sustained period of dollar weakness. This requires strong ongoing evidence that Europe, China and much of the rest of Asia continue to manage COVID-19 better than the US, and that their cyclical recoveries from the pandemic continue to surprise relative to the US.
Now as for the first question, about the demise of the dollar’s dominance, let me repeat that this is largely a separate issue, but I encourage any reader to be careful about getting sucked into this belief in making an investment or hedging decision.
It is quite possible that the use of the dollar can decline, and start off a systematic decline even when its value is strong. Indeed, in the past couple of years when its value was largely rising, decisions made by US policymakers to use the dollar’s dominance as a way of penalising other countries has resulted in those countries reducing their share of dollar currency reserves. Russia is a particular example, and there is some modest evidence that China is doing likewise.
And the opposite can also be true.
Ultimately, the dollar’s dominance cannot persistently outweigh the relative decline of the US economy in the world, which has been occurring now for 20 years. At some point, it will start to be replaced by something else. Whether that is, the renminbi, the euro, Bitcoin, the return of gold — all are conceivable, and may happen. It might be starting now. But don’t confuse that with where the dollar’s price is heading against other currencies in coming days, weeks, or in 2021.
This article was originally published in The Article.