Why Higher Oil is Negative for the Dollar

I have written my own piece on How Oil Prices Impact the U.S. Dollar but Jens Nordvig of Nomura has an equally thorough take that is worth reading:

What does the spike in oil prices mean for the dollar?

Recent memories suggest that higher oil prices are bad news for the dollar. First, we have been used to a generally negative correlation between oil prices and the dollar since around 2004. This was especially the case in the first part of 2008, when the correlation between EUR/USD and Brent reached very high levels. Second, past episodes of tension in the Middle East suggest that the dollar tends to weaken when there are oil supply shocks. This was the case during the first Iraq war in 1991 and in the run-up to the second Iraq war in 2003.

Beyond the observed correlations, there are also fundamental reasons to explain why the dollar should be negatively correlated with oil prices. We can think of three:

1. High US energy intensity: the US economy is more energy intensive than most other developed market economies. Linked to this, the US is a bigger oil importer than the eurozone. This again means that the US’s terms of trade deteriorate more than other economies when oil prices go higher.

2. Petrodollar flows:
When oil prices rise, oil-exporting countries generate more revenue. If a significant proportion of additional revenue is allocated into non-dollar currencies, the net impact can be USD selling. In 2008, when oil prices rose above $100/barrel for the first time, we saw a strong correlation between EUR/USD and oil prices (Figure 2). This correlation is consistent with an increasing share of euro in the reserves of oil-exporting countries, such as Russia and the Middle East.

3. Asymmetry in inflation targets:
Oil price shocks affect monetary policy differently in different countries. The Fed tends to focus on core inflation (Greenspan used to focus on the core PCE deflator for example). This means that higher oil prices are not a primary concern in relation to monetary policy. The ECB by contrast focuses on headline inflation, and we have observed in the past that upward pressure on headline inflation from global energy prices (such as in mid-2008) has the potential to trigger rate increases. This asymmetry in inflation targets creates a weak USD bias in the face of oil prices shocks, at least in relation to EUR/USD.

How Does an Oil Crisis Impact the U.S. Dollar?

Oil prices are on the rise and everyone is talking about the possibility of $100 oil. Right now, the rise in oil is accompanied by a rise in the U.S. dollar but will this relationship last? Taking a look back at the two prominent oil shocks of the past four decades (1973 and 1979) and others beyond that, we see that the dollar eventually weakens.

1973 Oil Crisis: Initially Dollar Bullish, Eventually Dollar Bearish

In 1973, oil prices jumped 134% when the members of the OAPEC, which is OPEC plus Egypt and Syria, announced that they were no longer shipping oil to nations that supported Israel in its conflict with Syria and Egypt. This effectively shut down exports to the US, Western Europe and Japan. As a result, prices rose significantly to account for the sharp reduction in supply. At the same time, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait, and Qatar unilaterally raised prices by 17 percent and announced production cuts after negotiations with major oil companies.

In response to this oil shock, the trade weighted US dollar index* as measured against the major currencies first strengthened alongside oil and then sold off immediately. At that time, the Federal Reserve was combating inflationary pressures by raising interest rates. The jump in crude exacerbated the need for further rate hikes, forcing the central bank to bring the Fed Funds target rate from 7.5 percent in May 1973 to a high of 13 percent by the summer of 1974. The focus on inflation was initially dollar bullish but once the rate hikes started to have a serious impact on US growth, the trend turned dollar bearish. Between the third quarter of 1973 and the first quarter of 1975, GDP growth contracted five out of the seven quarters and in response to the deterioration in growth, the US dollar erased all of its gains.

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1979 Oil Crisis: Initially Dollar Bullish, Eventually Dollar Bearish

The US’ second oil crisis in 1979 was triggered by the Iranian revolution and exacerbated by a gasoline shortage. OPEC raised prices by 14.5 percent on April 1st and the US Department of Energy announced phased oil price decontrols which involved the gradual increased of old oil price ceilings. Shortly thereafter, OEC raised prices a second time by 15 percent, the US halted imports from Iran, while Kuwait, Iran and Libya cut production. Saudi Arabia also eventually raised their market crude prices to $24 per barrel and because of all of these factors, crude oil prices increased 118 percent between January 1979 and December 1979.

The price action of the US dollar during that time was very similar to the price action of the greenback in 1973; it first rallied and then sold off. At that time, the Federal Reserve was also hiking interest rates to combat inflationary pressures and the oil price spike exacerbated their degree of rate hikes. Between January 1979 and December 1979, rates where taken from 10 percent to 14 percent and by March of 1980, the Fed Funds rate hit a high of 20 percent. Quarterly GDP growth dropped 7.8 percent in the second quarter of 1980, triggering the dollar’s demise.

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1990 Oil Price Spike: Persistent Dollar Weakness

Between June and October of 1990, oil prices also jumped 113 percent as a result of the first Gulf War. Interestingly enough, the US dollar behaved very differently for two reasons. The first was the short-lived nature of the oil spike; prices started falling 6 months after the initial rise and the second was the Fed’s monetary policy cycle. Unlike the oil crisis of 1973 or 1979, the Federal Reserve started cutting interest rates before the spike and continued to reduce rates throughout 1990 and into 1991 and the dollar was already in a downtrend due to the loosening of monetary policy. The weakness continued as growth slowed with GDP remaining stagnant in third quarter of 1990, and then falling 3 and 2 percent respectively over the next two quarters.

Although the U.S. dollar is rising right now, the abundance of spare capacity and the muted level of inflation means that the Federal Reserve is not pressured by the increase in oil prices. The market basically doesn’t believe that the Fed will start raising interest rates – and they have good reason to feel this way because based upon the last 3 oil shocks, the recovery could suffer from higher commodity prices. Back in the 1990s, the Fed took a break from cutting rates like they are expected to do in June, but they quickly resurrected their rate cuts as the economy slowed. Of course, interest rates were much higher then than they are now, but if growth does not pick up, the Fed may be forced to prolong its asset purchase program.

Dollar Unfazed By Mixed Economic Data

The US dollar appears to be unfazed by this morning’s mixed economic data. An improvement in consumer confidence has failed to help the dollar while the weaker news has pretty much been baked into the markets.

Christmas and New Years week is a time when traders are more focused on seeing family than making profits. It is probably truer this year than most because of the sharp volatility in the financial markets and the deep losses endured by most investors.

Third quarter GDP remained unrevised at -0.5 percent even though personal consumption slipped and core prices eased. Investors are more worried about the Q4 numbers than the Q3. The global recession and the stronger dollar could take a big bite out corporate earnings and growth.

The housing market also remains weak with new home sales falling for the fourth consecutive month and existing home sales falling by the largest amount on record. Sharp discounts on new homes is helping to slow the pace of falling demand.

The one piece of good news that we did see this morning was consumer confidence which was revised upwards in the month of December. Given that almost everyone knows someone that has been laid off, the price of gasoline is the only reason to cheer this holiday season. Prices at the pump have fallen close to 60 percent from its summer highs. For drivers, lower gas prices is like a tax cut. At a time when salaries are being frozen and bonuses are being reduced, a tax cut in the form of lower gasoline prices is welcomed with open arms.
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Dollar Tanks as Jobless Claims Signal 75bp Rate Cut from Fed

The US dollar is tanking as jobless claims rise by the largest amount since November 1982, 26 years ago. As I have suspected, it is the 1980s all over again.

This confirms that the 533k drop in non-farm payrolls last month will not be the bottom in the labor market. When claims first hit 573k in January of 1982, non-farm payrolls dropped by -327k. It rebounded significantly the next month (-6k), but that was only precursor to another 10 consecutive months of job losses with non-farm payrolls revisiting the -300k levels in July (NFP in July 1982 was -343k). These jobless claims numbers reflect the massive layoffs that we have heard in the past weeks from companies like AT&T, Viacom and Sony. Continuing claims hit 4.429 million, the highest since 1982.

The widening of the trade deficit leads us to believe that GDP will take a big dive in the fourth quarter. The Treasury market is already pricing in the possibility of deflation and depression with yields in zero to negative territory for the first time since the Great Depression and incoming data supports that thesis.

The weekly jobless claims number will add pressure on the Federal Reserve to cut interest rates by 75bp next Tuesday. Fed Fund futures are already pricing in a 100 percent chance of a 75bp rate cut from the Federal Reserve next week. This would take US rates to 0.25%, making the US dollar the lowest yielding currency in the developed world.

If the Fed takes interest rates to zero, we could see USD/JPY fall to 13 years lows and the Euro to return to 1.35.

Even though volatility in the currency market has compressed since October and November, the Federal Reserve’s next interest rate decision is a major event risk because interest rates will be taken to historically low levels. Not only are the Fed expected to take interest rates to the lowest level this generation has ever seen but they have to figure out how to effectively signal their intentions of taking US interest rates to zero without completely spooking the markets. This will be a difficult balance to walk and one that could easily lead to an expansion in volatility in the currency market.
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How Does the US Dollar Perform in a Recession?

There has been 3 recessions in the past 30 years. In each of those recessions, the dollar weakened in the first six months of the recession, then gained strength in the next six. Twelve months into the current recession, we see this pattern in the dollar repeated once again.

The more important question however is whether there is a pattern in the way the dollar performs in the second year of a recession. Taking a look at how the dollar traded in 2001, the 1990s and the 1980s, we see no consistent trend but that is only because the 1990 and 2001 recession only lasted 8 months.

The current recession can only be compared to the one in the 1980s and based upon how the dollar performed then, there could be a near term top in the US dollar in the first half of 2009. There were 2 separate recessions in the 1980s and according to the dollar index chart below, in each recession, a sharp dollar rally was followed by a sharp correction.

The space between the purple lines represent the 2 separate recessions. Even though the dollar rally did eventually continue, it was not before a meaningful correction.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see this happen again especially as the strong dollar takes a bite out of corporate earnings in the first or second quarter of 2009.

Click on the image to expand it:

Source: Bloomberg

Source: Bloomberg