Washington Insider -- Wednesday

Currency Weakening Traps

Here’s a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN’s well-placed observer.

White House and Congress Reach Spending Deal

The White House and Congress reached a budget deal consisting of $2.7 trillion in spending for Fiscal Years (FY) 2020 and 2021. The agreement would increase overall spending by around $50 billion for FY 2020.

The agreement would authorize spending levels around $320 billion more than limits set under the 2011 sequester, which established mandatory cuts. It would also suspend the debt ceiling until July 2021 – after the 2020 elections.

Savings of around $77 billion would be achieved through small spending reductions for Medicare after FY 2027 and fees collected by Customs and Border Protection (CBP), with both helping to offset the cost of the package. The Trump administration had originally sought $150 billion in spending offsets but faced opposition on that front from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

The agreement must still be passed by both houses of Congress and signed by President Donald Trump. Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., both pledged to quickly bring the deal to a floor vote, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he intends to hold a floor vote on the package before the August recess.

US-China Trade Talks Set To Take Place in Shanghai Next Week

U.S. trade negotiators will reportedly travel to Shanghai, China this Monday for the first round of face-to-face talks since last month's G20 summit in Osaka, Japan.

U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Robert Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin will lead the US delegation, while Vice-Premier Liu He and Commerce Minister Zhong Shan will head up the Chinese side.

The face-to-face meeting came after concessions were recently announced by both U.S. and China. The U.S. said it would offer exemptions from import tariffs for 110 Chinese products. Meanwhile, China said companies will soon purchase US agricultural products after being granted exemptions from duties imposed by Beijing.

Washington Insider: Currency Weakening Traps

Bloomberg is reporting this week that the appeal of weaker currencies in the U.S. may lead to “strong countermeasures by rivals.” This reflects the fact that major economies around the globe all seem to covet a weaker currency as risks to growth mount and make engineering a weaker dollar, euro or other heavyweight currency all the harder.

Bloomberg runs down the list. President Donald Trump has repeatedly badgered the Federal Reserve to cut rates and complained that the US dollar is too strong--but he’s got competition. It might not mention the exchange rate explicitly, but the European Central Bank is poised to loosen policies that are “weighing on the common currency,” Bloomberg says.

Bank of Japan Governor Haruhiko Kuroda says the bank will “persistently continue with powerful monetary easing” to boost inflation. In China, the central bank looks set to step up stimulus to revive growth.

The result? Thanks to synchronized monetary easing, any simultaneous moves to weaken currencies might cancel each other out--making “beggar-thy-trading partner” policies a waste of time.

“Everyone is sort of pushing on the same piece of string,” said Charles Diebel, head of fixed income at Mediolanum Asset Management. “If you have the Fed easing and the ECB easing, it’s just a relative game. It’s very hard for currency volatility to remain elevated.”

Despite the Fed’s increasing dovishness, the greenback has beaten most Group-of-10 peers this quarter. The Bank of Korea surprised markets with a rate cut last week, but the won only weakened briefly. Even though the Swiss National Bank keeps reiterating it has leeway to ease, the franc continues to be buoyant against the euro.

Foreign-exchange strategists say the risk of a U.S. move to weaken the dollar has risen after Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said last week that there’s no change in the nation’s currency policy “as of now.”

Bloomberg calls this situation “the latest race to the bottom.” In 2010, when major central banks were printing money and cutting rates, causing their exchange rates to fall, then-Brazilian Finance Minister Guido Mantega famously labeled it a “currency war.” The difference is that back then, the dollar was falling and other countries tried to catch up with it.

Now, the greenback is among the most overvalued G-10 currencies, according to a Bank for International Settlements model on real effective exchange rates.

A desire among policy makers to expand their toolkit to prop up growth is understandable. The International Monetary Fund has revised downward its growth forecast for 2019 repeatedly--including last week--as trade and geopolitical tensions threatened to damp the world economy. Major central banks, including those in Switzerland and Australia, are sticking to a low-rates policy.

“If the U.S. wants a weaker dollar now, they are going to struggle to get that with just the use of monetary policy,” said Kit Juckes, a strategist at Societe Generale SA. “Fed policy is no longer the driver of the dollar--growth is. A rate cut by the Fed isn’t going to get the euro stronger if the prospect of growth there is weak.”

Any competitive devaluations are naturally fraught with political tensions, while prolonged low interest rates risk asset bubbles and financial repression, Bloomberg says.

Some experts see this development as a U.S.-Europe story, including Stephen Jen, the chief executive officer of Eurizon SLJ Capital. He reckons the BOJ has already done so much easing that it is now worried about the economic effects of sustained negative rates. Meanwhile, the People’s Bank of China may refrain from enacting a large stimulus amid fears it could destabilize the economy over the long haul.

“It’s really the euro and the dollar racing lower,” Jen said in an interview. “The Fed doesn’t really have a strong case to cut at all as the U.S. economy is doing fine. The real issues are happening outside the U.S. That’s a very different situation than the Europeans face. They are facing weakness right there in Germany.”

Markets expect the Fed to announce a 25-basis-point cut in interest rates next week. Despite that, the euro depreciated 1.7% against the dollar this quarter, and is down 2.5% this year.

So, we will see what happens, especially regarding the extent of dollar “weakness” as the U.S. policy changes and trading partners react. These may well be more muted than many US officials expect—and should watched closely as they appear, Washington Insider believes.

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