The Strong Dollar Rests on Pillars of Sand by John Butler, Atom Capital

Recent dollar strength has been a surprise to many but a strong dollar was also a key component of the Asian currency crises of 1997-98. These contributed to sharply lower oil prices, which in turn helped to trigger the 1998 Russian debt default, European bond spread de-convergence and spectacular blowup of hedge-fund Long Term Capital Management (LTCM). It is worth recalling that, when LTCM failed, the dollar abruptly gave up a full year of gains. While history rhymes rather than repeats, I suspect something comparable is likely in 2015, although with U.S. total economy debt much higher, the potential for a sharp decline in the dollar is that much greater.

Time Horizons and Time Preference

Back when I managed macro strategy teams at investment banks, I had a simple set of guidelines that I required junior strategists to follow when making investment recommendations, that is, in addition to those required by the firm or the regulators. These included:

  • Recommendations must be supported by a broad range of fact-checked evidence, rather than one or two ‘cherry-picked’ pieces;
  • Recommendations must be ‘actionable’ in a practical way by the target clients and one or more of these must be specified;
  • Recommendations must not only provide a specific price (or return) target, but also an estimate of risk (or volatility) and reference to a specific time horizon;
  • Recommendations must include one or more conditions under which the particular investment would no longer be as attractive, if at all.

In practice, most analysts managed in their initial draft recommendations to follow the first two but struggled when it came to the third and fourth. The reason for this is most probably the inclination that many if not all quantitative-analytical types have for expecting that financial assets be priced ‘correctly’, according to whatever analytical framework is applied. If something is out of line, so the thinking goes, it should start correcting as soon as the analysis in question is complete and should completely correct over the short-to-medium term time horizon of primary importance to the bulk of those active in the investment management industry.

While that might seem reasonable, the problem is that, notwithstanding claims to the contrary, investors are not rational. Indeed, I would hold that no economic actors are rational in any meaningful, measurable way. This is due in part to my view of human nature and modern psychology seems to uncover new ways in which our minds are biased and irrational with each passing day. But if all investment opinions are biased and irrational to some degree, the sum of all such opinions—the financial markets— is most probably also biased and irrational.

So-called ‘behavioral investing’ tries to address these biases in a systematic way in order generate excess investment returns over time with acceptably low risk. However, the problem with any such ‘fight the irrational herd’ approach is, to paraphrase Keynes, “The herd can remain irrational longer than the rational investor can remain solvent.” On top of this there is the added complexity of the so-called ‘beauty contest’, also mentioned by Keynes, in which investors constantly try to out-guess each other’s’ intentions, irrational, behavioral or otherwise, so what in fact is ultimately decisive in price determination at any point in time arguably has little if anything to do with any underlying, fundamental, rational investment process.

Having been an active investor for many years, I have experienced a number of profit and loss events across a broad range of assets and strategies. In the end, while idea generation, however rudimentary, is necessary to active trading or investing, it is ultimately some aspect of risk management, of knowing when NOT to trade or invest, that often tips the balance between success and failure. Sure, anyone can be ‘smart’ or ‘lucky’ for a time but the irrational herd is far more dangerous to the unusually smart than to the lucky, even though many in the latter category no doubt consider themselves also (or perhaps exclusively) in the former camp.

The fight against irrationality, if one wishes to call it that, is thus one that is overwhelming more likely to be won in the longer-term, over which most investors have only little or no interest. In the economic jargon, investors have high ‘time preference’ to front-load investment returns, by implication taking irrationally large longer-term risks. For institutional investors managing other peoples’ money, it is often a losing business proposition to fight the herd so aggressively as to risk losing clients, even if the investment views implemented ultimately work out longer-term. Holding on to client money month after month, quarter after quarter, year after year, when an apparently irrational market chooses to become ever more irrational is a potentially career-limiting move in the extreme. Thus herd-following, rather than fighting, becomes the industry norm, and those who rise to the top of large asset management organizations do so not because they are great investors but because they are skilled at retaining client assets regardless of the direction in which the irrational herd is travelling.

This natural (if irrational) herding tendency is further exaggerated when economic or monetary officials intervene in order to ‘stabilize’ asset markets, which at least since 1987 has meant to prevent them from correcting violently to the downside.[1] When the herd believes that officials have their backs, they tend to ignore the risks closing in on their backsides for far longer than they ought to. And so the inevitable bubbles that form can continue to grow and grow, yet concern about them fades and fades, as normalcy bias and policy goals converge in a world of ever-rising or at least not falling asset prices.

In this world, biased by policy towards steadily rising asset prices, returns beget leverage, and leveraged returns beget greater leverage. Regulators pretend as if they can manage this and its probable future effects on the financial system and economy, but 2008 and many other manias, panics and crashes that have come and gone before inform us otherwise. Sure, a new regulatory effort is rolled out now and again, to much fanfare: Note the central bankers’ ‘macroprudential’ PR campaign over the past two years. The ivory-tower academic folk who originally propose such measures—or so they claim—applaud on the sidelines while taking implied, self-serving credit. (These academics are equally quick to blame the ‘private sector’ whenever anything goes wrong, as their ideas can’t possibly be at fault.)

I’ve been around long enough to see this dynamic play out on multiple occasions. I also witnessed first-hand the spectacular events of 1997-98, a period with strong parallels to today. Back then, the dollar rose on the false view that the U.S. could decouple from crises abroad. When events abruptly proved otherwise, the dollar gave up a full year’s gains in just two weeks. The same could happen in 2015.

Poor-Quality Growth, Rising Imbalances

Following six years of zero interest rates and QE, the U.S. economy has still failed to resume healthy, sustainable growth. Yes, the economy is growing at present and there have been some pockets of deleveraging. But this amounts to ‘cherry picking’ the range of available evidence and thus fails to adhere to even the first of my guidelines for investment recommendations. Looking behind the numbers

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