What does a Weaker U.S. Dollar Mean for Companies & Consumers?

Earlier this year the U.S. dollar reached a 10-year high compared to the currencies of its major trading partners*.  However, the greenback has declined about 8% year-to-date through July.  In this email we’ll explore what drove the U.S. dollar to record levels, how dollar weakness or strength impacts corporations and consumers, and what may lie ahead for the world’s most widely-held currency.

Many factors affect a currency’s strength or weakness.  Some of these include interest rate levels, inflation, central bank policy, investor sentiment and the health of the economy.  The U.S. dollar is unique in that it is the largest foreign exchange reserve, accounting for over 60% of global reserves.  As a result, other countries’ need for reserves and investors’ fears or confidence also affect how much the dollar appreciates or depreciates.

Following the financial crisis, the U.S. dollar appreciated versus many other currencies due to its perceived safety and ultimately, a quicker U.S. economic recovery compared to its peers.  This happened despite the Federal Reserve’s ultra-accommodative monetary policy in which it pumped trillions of dollars into the economy – an action that might normally depreciate the dollar due to an increased currency supply.  Instead, the Fed’s actions helped lead the U.S. economy out of the financial crisis which helped support corporate earnings and sales growth.  This in turn led to increased foreign demand for U.S. stocks and bonds.  As U.S. dollars are required to purchase our stocks and bonds, growing foreign investment in U.S. securities led to greater demand for the greenback, and subsequent dollar appreciation.

During the last ten years of dollar appreciation, we’ve experienced both positive and negative effects.  On the positive side, a strong dollar makes traveling abroad more affordable for U.S. citizens and effectively lowers the prices consumers pay for imports.  As consumers account for roughly two-thirds of U.S. GDP growth, the savings gained on lower-cost imports due to a strong dollar can lead to significant gains in disposable income, all else being equal.

On the downside, a strong dollar may hinder tourism in the U.S. and could result in weakened demand for U.S. exports as those goods become relatively more expensive for foreigners.  Another drawback is negative foreign currency translation for U.S. multinational companies.  U.S.-based firms that earn revenues abroad will have to exchange foreign currencies back to U.S. dollars at a less favorable rate.  This acts as a headwind to sales and earnings growth, and contributed to the recent “earnings recession” we saw among companies in the S&P 500 Index in 2015 and 2016.

In contrast, recent U.S. dollar weakness has started to help boost corporate earnings growth and could be a support for stocks going forward.  While it’s impossible to know if the dollar’s strength will continue to moderate, a few factors suggest it might.  One is an improving global economic outlook relative to the U.S.  The U.S. economy was a bright spot in the early years following the last recession, but emerging market economic growth is gaining ground and European GDP growth recently outpaced U.S. GDP growth.  Another factor is that the Federal Reserve has shifted to a less accommodative monetary policy stance.  Ordinarily this would support further U.S. dollar appreciation (via a reduced supply of dollars and higher interest rates attracting foreign investors); however, investor concerns that restrictive monetary policy could slow down the current economic expansion are outweighing the shift in the Fed’s policy stance.

Considering the above factors and given several years of strong gains, recent U.S. dollar weakness could continue.  While there are pros and cons to a depreciating dollar, we would welcome the shift as this would help reduce import costs for consumers and businesses, while supporting sales and earnings growth for U.S. multi-national corporations.

*Powershares DB US Dollar Index Bullish Fund (UUP) – compares US dollar to euro, yen, pound, loonie, Swedish krona and Swiss franc

The Parsec Team

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What’s Ahead for Fixed Income?

After more than thirty years of falling interest rates and thus rising bond prices, yields may be moving higher.  While trends are often short-lived, this new trajectory could persist into 2017 and beyond given recent changes in the political landscape as well as a less accommodative Federal Reserve (Fed).  We’ll take a look at what this new monetary and political environment may mean for bonds and how to best-position your fixed income portfolio for the long-term.

A proxy for the bond market, the 10-year Treasury note yield hit an historical low of 1.36% in July 2016 only to jump 100 basis points (or 1%) by the end of November.  The move came as investors responded favorably to the surprise U.S. Presidential and Congressional election results, in anticipation of higher growth levels in the years to come.

Part of the optimism stemmed from the new administration’s promise to cut consumer and corporate taxes and spend on infrastructure projects.  This picture presents a mixed bag for bonds, however.  Increased fiscal spending and lower taxes are positive for economic growth and a healthy economy is generally good for lending and credit activity.  But stronger economic growth would push yields higher and thus bond prices lower.  On the other hand, higher yields would provide investors with higher current income, acting as a partial offset to lower bond prices.  Rising interest rates or yields would also allow investors to reinvest into higher-yielding bonds.

Duration is an important characteristic to consider when reinvesting at higher yields.  A bond’s duration is the length of time it takes an investor to recoup his or her investment.  It also determines how much a bond’s price will fall when yields rise.  Longer duration bonds such as Treasury or corporate bonds with long maturities experience sharper price declines when yields rise.  Likewise, shorter duration bonds are less volatile and will exhibit smaller price declines, all else being equal.  Because we can’t predict the exact direction or speed of interest rate changes, it’s important to have exposure to bonds with a mix of durations.  In this way an investor is able to respond to any given environment.  For example, when yields are rising, an investor can sell her shorter-duration bonds, which are less susceptible to prices changes, and reinvest into longer-duration bonds with higher rates.

Another factor that affects bond prices is inflation.  Inflation expectations have started to heat up in light of low unemployment, wage growth, and expectations for increased government stimulus.  Higher inflation could also put upward pressure on interest rates and thus downward pressure on bond prices.  While inflation can erode the real returns of many bonds, some bonds, such as Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS), stand to benefit.  TIPS are indexed to inflation and backed by the U.S. government.  Whenever inflation rises, the principal amount of TIPS gets adjusted higher.  This in turn leads to a higher interest payment because a TIPS coupon is calculated based on the principal amount.

Finally, the Federal Reserve’s shift away from accommodative monetary policy will have an impact on bond prices.  Although higher interest rates from the Fed will likely pressure fixed income prices, overall we view this change favorably.  This is because a return to more normal interest rate levels is critical to the functioning of large institutions like insurance companies and banks, which play a key role in our society.  Likewise, higher interest rates will provide more income to the millions of Baby Boomers starting to retire and would help stabilize struggling pension plans at many companies.

Taken altogether and in light of an uncertain environment, we believe a diversified bond portfolio targeted to meet your specific fixed income needs is the best way to weather this changing yield environment.  In addition to considering your specific income objectives, our Investment Policy Committee meets regularly to assess the current economic, fiscal, and monetary environment.  We adjust our asset allocation targets in order to take advantage of attractive opportunities or reduce exposure to higher-risk (over-valued) areas.  While we may over-weight some areas or under-weight others, in the long-run we continue to believe that a well-diversified portfolio is the best way to weather any market environment.

Thank you,

The Parsec Team

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