Dollar-denominated financial markets appeared to suffer a dramatic change on or about the 23 March. This article examines the possibility that it marks the beginning of the end for the Fed’s dollar.

At this stage of an evolving economic and financial crisis, such thoughts are necessarily speculative. But an imminent banking crisis is now a near certainty, with most global systemically important banks in a weaker position than at the time of the Lehman crisis. US markets appear oblivious to this risk, though the ratings of G-SIBs in other jurisdictions do reflect specific banking risks rather than a systemic one at this stage.

A banking collapse will be a game-changer for financial markets, and we should then worry that the Fed has bound the dollar’s future to their fortunes.

The dollar could fail completely by the end of this year. Against that possibility a reset might be implemented, perhaps by reintroducing the greenback, which is not the same as the Fed’s dollar. Any reset is likely to fail unless the US Government desists from inflationary financing, which requires a radically changed mindset, even harder to imagine in a presidential election year.

The most important mistake economists and financial watchers make is to assume events and prices tomorrow are simply projections of those of today. It is the basis of all economic and financial modelling. Yet despite the hard lessons of experience economic forecasters persist with their misleading models.

Nowhere is the failure of linear projection from the past more important than in the lifeblood common to everything. While knowing that state-issued currencies change in their utility over time, almost no one expects their demise, other perhaps at some point in the far distant future. But what if this generally linear expectation is as wrong as all other forecasting models? What if the response to the current economic crisis is a more rapid depreciation of currencies? And what happens if they die altogether? And what are the consequences for the ordinary person?

This article explores these what-ifs. It examines the conditions that could lead to this outcome. History gives us a guide, not through extrapolation, but by telling us that every recorded currency collapse has occurred to fiat currencies unbacked by gold or silver. So, we know it will happen — eventually. Less understood is that the pattern is always the same: a prolonged period of falling purchasing power, followed by a sudden collapse when a currency’s users finally reject it. In terms of time the latter phase usually lasts approximately six months.

Assessing the turning point

The early morning of Monday, 23 March was a significant time, marking the top of the dollar’s trade-weighted index. At the same time, gold, silver and copper prices, having fallen in the weeks before turned sharply higher. And while oil initially followed, it was a month before it resumed its uptrend — delayed by the delivery hiatus in the futures markets which briefly drove the price negative. The S&P 500 rallied the following day, ending a near 30% decline before recovering all of it, and then some.

Something had changed. Either markets decided that economic growth, both in the US and the rest of the world was going to continue following lockdowns, and growing demand for key commodities was going to be resumed. Or, as the decline in the dollar’s TWI indicated, the purchasing power of the dollar was going to decline, and commodity prices were reflecting an accelerating downtrend for the dollar’s purchasing power.

The performance of the S&P 500 since 23 March, being unhinged from any business conditions, gives us a clue: the flood of money emanating from the Fed is fuelling stock prices. It is also fuelling prices of all other financial assets.

The turnaround in silver is a more subtle story, shown in the chart as the reciprocal of the more usual gold/silver ratio. Silver had been ignored, classed solely as an industrial metal. Gold was seen by the financial community as the only metallic hedge against uncertainty in the financial system. That changed on 23 March when the gold/silver ratio peaked at 125 on the previous business day. It is now beginning to outperform gold with the gold/silver ratio currently down to 98. We might look back and pinpoint this time as marking the beginning of a return to some moneyness in silver.

The weeks before had seen the Fed ease monetary policy. On 3 March, the Fed cut its funds rate from 1 ½% to 1%. In the accompanying announcement the Fed said that the fundamentals of the economy remained strong, but the coronavirus posed evolving risks to the economy.

On 15 March, the Fed cut its funds rate again, this time to zero, but the statement now said the coronavirus had harmed communities and disrupted economic activity in many countries, including the US. On a twelve-month basis, overall price inflation and price increases for other than food and energy were running at below 2%. The Fed announced renewed quantitative easing of at least $500bn of Treasury purchases and $200bn of mortgage-backed securities “in the coming months”.  It was “prepared to use its full range of tools to support the flow of credit to households and businesses and thereby promote its maximum employment and price stability goals.”

That day the Fed made two other announcements. The first detailed arrangements for the encouragement of credit expansion to support both consumers and businesses, including the reduction of reserve ratios for all banks to zero. The second concerned the reduction of costs in drawing down USD swap lines at the other major central banks. They were followed over the course of the week by a series of announcements facilitating the availability of credit.

Clearly, the Fed was engaging the ultimate in aggressive monetary policies. And taking a phrase from the last head of the ECB, the Fed had signalled it was prepared to do whatever it takes without limitation. But the response in the markets took a week to develop into an inflection point, a normal pause before a new direction is found.

Central bank inflation and bank credit difficulties

Since the Fed is one step removed from the non-financial economy it relies on commercial banks to implement its monetary policy. But commercial banks will only act as the Fed’s agents if they are confident the rewards are greater than the risks involved. If the current crisis is simply a matter of the coronavirus being contained before everything returns to normal, then bankers might be prepared to take a punt on an increase of bank lending.

But as time passes, the losses mount. Business and consumer defaults are increasing, and the prospects for a rapid recovery appear to be receding. Furthermore, liquidity strains in the banking system are resurfacing, despite the massive injections of QE by the Fed. After subsiding from the panicky days of last September, overnight repos are on the increase again totalling anything between $20—$100bn daily.

It has been generally forgotten that the global economy was already facing a recession before the virus lockdowns. Trade wars between America and China and bank credit expansion having run for a decade were a repeat of the conditions that led to the Wall Street Crash in 1929, when the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act following the roaring twenties was enacted, bank credit imploded, and the 1930s depression followed. Similarly, banks are now highly leveraged on their balance sheets and fear of bad debts has taken over from lending greed. The global banking cohort is increasingly desperate to reduce balance sheet commitments at the same time as the Fed and other central banks are frantic to see them expanded.

It is no wonder that the Fed’s expansion has remained bottled up in financial markets, driving financial assets even further into dangerous overvaluation territory. Consequently, without liquidity flowing more freely into the non-financial economy, bad debts can only deteriorate further, with loan risk rapidly increasing for commercial banks.

Systemic issues are being ignored

When the coronavirus first became an economic issue, there were mounting concerns over payment failures in supply chains. In the US, these payments are effectively the equivalent of gross output, which at the end of last year was running at $38 trillion. While we regard gross output as the value of products as they flow through their production stages, the payments flow the other way, back down the chains. Therefore, the $38 trillion figure can be taken as proxy for the sum of all supply chain payments in the US, to which must be added the dollar equivalents of supply chain payments outside the US for semi-manufactured imports.

Not all supply chains have been completely disrupted, so the good news is payment disruptions onshore should be significantly less than $38 trillion but could easily be half that. But there is likely to be additional disruption from abroad, a point addressed by the Fed when it increased the number of central banks (but not China) having access to its swap lines.

The risks to commercial banks are not so much from the largest corporations, likely to be bailed out if in trouble, but from lower tiers of borrowers. This affects banks with exposure to collateralised loan obligations, which are bundled loans to companies often unable to raise funds any other way — today’s version of the collateralised debt obligations that blew up the banking system in 2008. Additionally, banks have direct loans and revolving capital exposure on their balance sheets with all businesses in the $38 trillion of onshore supply chains.

The market capitalisation of the US’s G-SIBs — global systemically important banks — is less than a trillion dollars. Yet the supply chain failures that they are expected to backstop are many trillions — multiple times their market capitalisation, and even of their balance sheet equity.

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