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US Sanctions, Currency Wars and Financial Crises - DFX Key Themes



It is Not Wise to Start Financial Fires in a Market so Parched for Value

The financial markets find themselves in between two storm fronts. On the one hand, there is the seasonal liquidity drain that is associated with Summer trade. More historical norm than actual exchange closures, the ‘Summer Doldrums’ present a consistent curb on volume, open interest, volatility and productive trend year after year. However, the restraint is not guaranteed. Though not as common as those Fall (for the Northern Hemisphere) triggered crises and deep bear trends, there are certainly bouts of panic that originate in these quiet months. And that is why we should pay closer attention to the other storm front that has consistently stood at the border of our collective consciousness. We have watched as growth forecasts have cooled, the limitations of monetary policy to offer temporary support have entered mainstream discourse and protectionism has emerged to threaten one of the most consistent sources of stability in globalization.

These are not new risks, but they have been regularly brushed to the side in favor of short speculative opportunities to be pursue distractedly. Yet, draining liquidity in these questionable conditions has acted to call greater attention to the risks at hand. And, now with the tension applied by the United States on peers and counterparts alike, we are seeing the growth of clear conflict threatening to force the issue of more candid evaluations of value. Trade wars had – and still has – the capacity to trigger a full scale deleveraging of excess risk, but the temporary stay in the spread of kind-for-kind retaliations among developed world giants soothed imminent fears. This front is likely to erupt once again in the not-to-distant future under more pressing circumstances.

In the meantime, a sister action in the form of US sanctions placed on less-friendly countries may take up the reins on global sentient. The Trump administration reversed its participation in the nuclear deal with Iran (27th largest economy) and restored sanctions on the country much to the condemnation of the other participants of the deal. The US has also moved to apply new penalties on Russia (12th largest economy) in response to its supposed use of nerve agent on a former spy. The USDRUB soared to a two year high this past week. And, showing the most severe short-term impact of all was the quickly escalating sanctions that the US is placing on Turkey (17th largest economy) for ostensibly the country’s refusal to release a US pastor swept up during the failed coup. The country’s currency has dropped over 55% versus the Dollar (through Monday’s open), and this time the financial exposure for major economies (particularly European) was quickly seized upon. Let’s see if this fire can be contained. 

Is the US Placing Pressure on Major Counterparts Like the  EU Through Proxy? 

The Trump Administration has likely started to recognize that there are rumblings of coordination from those countries that are already under the influence of the United States’ sanctions or feel they soon will be. That is likely a key reason the President struck a conciliatory tone with EU President Juncker when a few weeks ago he agreed not to pursue further tariffs – particularly on autos – so long as the two economic superpowers were negotiating. That said, it is clear that the strategy being employed on the US side depends on applying enough pressure that counterparts are willing to sacrifice more in order to win a compromise to find relief. That brings in the proxy pressures that the US has seemingly favored over the past weeks in the stead of outright trade wars.

As mentioned above, the US has announced sanctions against Iran, Russia and Turkey in short order. These moves would certainly draw less criticism from Americans dubious of the government’s foreign policy moves as each is considered more adversary than ally. Yet, there may be more to these pursuits than simply following a moral compass with global relations. Other countries have supported efforts to promote relationships with these countries over the past years which has entailed exceptional investment alongside diplomatic capital. On two fronts in particular, this particular application of pressure has had enormous side effects for the Europe.

With Iran, the EU is still trying to hold together the agreement made between the OPEC member and the other participants of the original nuclear agreement, taking a lead to promote stability. When President Trump stated in a tweet that those that county to do business with Iran could have their business with the US halted, some business leaders took it seriously and looked to curb trade. Yet, the EU responded saying any European companies that complied with the United States’ demands on Iran – and thus jeopardized the effort to hold the agreement together – would face penalties from European authorities. With Turkey, there is no slow build up. The rapid tumble in the country’s currency (Lira) has risked the stability of assets foreign interests have pursued. European banks are particularly exposed and that led the ECB to voice concern over their connection should instability grow. While this rapidly escalating proxy pressure on Europe by the United States’ actions maybe unintentional, the nature of how it is playing out suggests otherwise. 

Dollar Rally a Result of Policy and Justification to Devalue?

On July 20, President Trump lashed out (via Tweet as his want) at the Euro and Chinese Yuan claiming the currencies were being manipulated to render an unfair competitive advantage to their respective economies. Such claims are dubious at best. With the Yuan, history shows the country has a penchant for exerting influence over the activity level and direction of its ‘Renminbi’ to help promote economic, financial and social stability at home. However, their ability to keep all these efforts leveled out on the horizon is increasingly troubled. What’s more, a steady charge higher for USDCNH is exactly what would be expected if the United States’ tariffs on China were having their intend effects.

As to the criticism of the Euro, there is little evidence to support that view. Four years ago, the anger would have been justified when the ECB said it would applied monetary policy in order to prevent the EURUSD exchange rate from passing 1.4000 – there must have been an agreement behind closed doors to allow this given how blatant the effort. This claim now, however, finds little support in action or event threat. Again, this is likely evidence of a strategy with questionable execution. Making a claim that multiple major currencies are being unfairly devalued – one others may agree to out of historical assumption and the other more dubious – can be used as pretext for enacting a policy aimed at counteracting the stated inequity.

If there is indeed interest for US officials to abandon the ‘strong Dollar’ policy as has been hinted at multiple times over the past months and actually introduce policy to sink the currency, that appetite will be significantly bolstered this past week with the surge for the USD versus both the ‘majors’ and emerging market currencies. Arguably the result of the Trump Administration’s own policies, it may nonetheless serve as the foundation for a new course of global financial conflict. 

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