The tide of Fed liquidity has reversed, leaving a whole variety of public and private equity strategies stranded. Not since the dotcom bubble has Warren Buffett’s aphorism about the tide going out revealing who has been swimming naked been more apposite.
At a broader level, the sudden lack of diversification and increase in correlation between bonds and equities has blown a hole in the core theory behind most pension fund models and significantly impaired actual wealth for many pensioners.
After years of returns averaging 6 to 7 per cent for 60:40 funds, year-to-date they are down 10 to 15 per cent. Meanwhile, as the RBA and other central banks follow the Fed in lockstep, the impact on ordinary households’ cash flows from higher mortgage rates is starting to weigh on the housing market.
In order to solve the inflation caused by their previous policies, they are now threatening stagflation. Everything is getting hit, with nowhere to hide except US dollar cash and perhaps ultra short-dated bonds.
May has also seen almost every currency collapse against the dollar — including pseudo currencies like crypto — and even gold. However, while the current strength of the US dollar is being represented as a flight to quality and the last place to hide, we suspect that this is temporary, even if it is true.
Much more likely in fact is that dollar strength is part of a wider deleveraging play across all asset classes. As the Fed shrinks its balance sheet, so too do most of the financial players running carry trades and leveraged positions generally. A sharp move in exchange rates — both the Aussie and the yen for example dropped almost 14 per cent in a month — means a currency mismatch is devastating, forcing a scramble to close down dollar borrowing.
Beyond this, however, is an even bigger issue, that of a weaker dollar based on the recognition that, for most of the world, the dollar is no longer low risk.
Indeed, for investors outside the US, arguably there is no longer even a common risk-free rate to base things on. The unprecedented move by the Biden administration to freeze and essentially confiscate the overseas assets of Russian people has effectively destroyed the concept of the dollar and especially US Treasuries as a risk-free asset.
Put simply, an asset that can go to zero overnight can no longer be regarded as risk-free for anyone outside of the US, or perhaps the broader West, but given that most of the world’s excess savings originate not in ‘The West’ but in ‘The Rest’, this has significant implications for long-term capital flows. Indeed, we don’t believe it is an exaggeration to say that this is the biggest potential systemic disruption to financial markets since Nixon took the dollar off the gold peg in 1971.
What it also means is that anyone with US dollar assets, but who is concerned that their government may fall foul of US foreign policy at some point in the future, will now be looking to move those dollars into ‘safer’ assets outside of the dollar zone.
Indeed, it will be interesting to see how demand for trophy property in Sydney and Melbourne, let alone London, Vancouver and San Francisco holds up, now that they are functioning as risk multiplication rather than risk diversification.
Having said that, with the dollar where it is, the purchase of commodities or real assets outside the US looks very attractive right now and we wouldn’t be surprised to see an upsurge of M&A throughout the whole of Asia Pacific and emerging markets.
As for China, with $US1 trillion of US Treasuries, it may choose not to sell, but it seems unlikely it will be a buyer of many more, and indeed one angle might be to obtain a lot of dollar liabilities against those and use them to buy real assets.
Perhaps China could borrow in dollars against their Treasuries to pay for the next phase of One Belt One Road? Who knows? Perhaps they have done that already.
Mark Tinker is chief investment officer of Toscafund Hong Kong and the founder of Market Thinking. He blogs on behavioural finance and markets at Market-thinking.com.