Investing

Unilateral currency intervention: Avoid at all cost

As the FOMC meets this week to review its policy stance,
another issue continues to rear its ugly head.

Despite the denials and counter denials by various Trump
Administration officials, the talk of unilateral currency intervention by the
US Treasury just won’t go away.

Just last Friday, Larry Kudlow, the Director of the White
House National Economic Council, told CNBC that Mr. Trump “ruled out any
currency intervention” after meeting with his economic team.

Subsequently, Mr. Trump himself countered by telling
reporters, “I didn’t say I’m not going to do something”, according to the Wall
Street Journal.

All this back and forth is both amusing and not surprising
from the current administration.

At the same time, unfortunately, this issue is critically important
to the global economy, global trade and state of the world asset markets.

What is even more disturbing are the assertions that a
unilateral currency intervention by the US policymakers can work.

In my opinion, nothing could be further from the truth and,
for the sake of global trade and economy, it should be avoided at all costs.

Currency intervention is nothing new. It has been practiced
off and on by numerous countries over the years. The US Treasury, for the
record, has participated in several interventions over the years. And there is
nothing wrong with bringing a little order to the currency markets when they are
getting one sided and the economic consequences of big currency moves become
intolerable for some countries. Even unilateral currency intervention itself
has been tolerated by the markets. Just look at the Swiss Franc. The Swiss
central bank has been working overtime for the past ten years to make sure the
economic burden of a strong currency was tolerable, in turn blowing up its
balance sheet disproportionately.

But unilateral currency intervention by the US authorities
to effectively weaken the reserve currency of the world will be a totally
different ball game, especially in the current global trade related concerned
environment.

While it could certainly succeed, I believe the likelihood
of success in the current global economic environment is modest at best. Even
more worryingly, there is a significant case to be made that such an
intervention may prove to be a catastrophic miscalculation and may take down
the global trading regime.

More on that in a minute.

What is unilateral currency intervention and how would it
work?

Typically currency interventions by the US authorities are
conducted by the US Treasury using its Exchange Stabilization Fund (ESF)
and executed by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Further, given the limitation
of the size of the ESF, The Federal Reserve has shared the burden of large-scale
foreign currency purchases in the past.

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York, on behalf of the
Treasury will sell the dollar to buy a basket of foreign currencies, thus
depressing the value of the dollar against a basket of currencies.

The logistics of interventions are fairly well established
and can be unfurled rather quickly.

But several issues are important in this regard. The size of
the ESF is controlled by Congress and rather small relative to the size of
dollar flows in the world. So, if the US Department of the Treasury runs out of
dollars in the ESF, it will require a greater allocation from Congress, or
explicit help from the Federal Reserve to hold its foreign exchange (FX) purchases
and obtain new dollars for further intervention.

Why avoid it at all cost?

While the logistics of a currency intervention is straight
forward and routine, I believe this would be a catastrophic mistake.

Why? Because the whole world will interpret it for what it is:
a unilateral escalation of the current trade conflict by the issuer of the
reserve currency of the world using unconventional financial weapons.

While the initial intervention may succeed for a bit, make
no mistake about it: global asset markets are not going to take to it well. In
fact, the markets have had great difficulty dealing with the tariffs, effectively
representing artillery fire in the global trade war. Just imagine how the
markets would react to bringing out the nuclear cruise missiles, which is what
unilateral currency intervention would be construed as in the trade war
context.

The initial success will fade rather quickly as risky assets
start underperforming and US and foreign investors look for a place to hide, with
US Treasury markets as a likely destination. This would lead a  to additional dollar strength rather than the
desired weakness.

A similar situation happened in August 2011 when US credit
ratings were downgraded. Despite the increase in the perceived US credit risk because
of the downgrade, perversely, the 10-year Treasury yield went lower as
investors sold risky assets and headed for the Treasury markets.

US authorities could, of course, double down, and may even
succeed in keeping the dollar lower. But even in that scenario, the damage to
the markets and global trade would be enormous.

And for what?

The US economy is a domestic economy to boot. Foreign trade
is a relatively small component of the overall economy. The gains from
incremental weakness in the dollar would, in economic terms, be quite modest
for the risk of unwinding the global trading system and the perceived lack of
strength of the reserve currency of the world.

The risks would indeed outweigh the modest rewards.

Because the US is a domestic economy, for the most part, they
would be better off convincing the Federal Reserve to cut rates more
aggressively rather than manipulating the dollar directly. That in turn could
get the dollar lower anyway.

So, please go ahead and harass Jerome Powell to your hearts’
content but leave the unilateral currency intervention to the Swiss. The US
economy is better served by hewing to the meaningless adage – a strong US
dollar is good for the US economy.

Important Information

Blog header image:
BonninStudio / Stocksy.com

The opinions expressed
are those of the author, are based on current market conditions and are subject
to change without notice. These opinions may differ from those of other Invesco
investment professionals.

Invesco Distributors, Inc. is the US distributor for Invesco
Ltd.’s retail products and collective trust funds, and is an indirect, wholly
owned subsidiary of Invesco Ltd.

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