In the latest work from the Investment Institute, Philip Saunders & Sahil Mahtani explore moves to erode dollar dominance and the shift to a multi-currency international monetary order.
Lindsay Williams: Today we are going to talk about the dollar or rather the potential for not talking about the dollar in a few years’ time because we are going to talk about a concept called de-dollarisation. With me is Sahil Mahtani, who is a Strategist at Investec Asset Management in London and with him is his colleague, Co-Head of Multi-Asset Growth at Investec Asset Management in London again and that is Philip Saunders.
Gentlemen, de-dollarisation (starting with you, Sahil) has been spoken about for many, many years, in fact probably since the 1970s.
Sahil Mahtani: Correct. So I think until just a few years ago when people talked about de-dollarisation, they typically referred to efforts to shift usage in emerging economies, typically after hyper-inflation, away from dollars but in the last few years you hear it being talked about in a different way and it now refers to a shift in the global monetary order centred around the US to a more multi-polar currency arrangement.
Lindsay Williams: Philip, the transition in currency values is quite quick. I mean some people might remember when the store of value for the world was the British pound or sterling but what I am talking about now is the way that currencies go in and out of favour and you make the point that the dollar lost 45% of its value against the deutsche mark between the years 1971 and 1978. Massive implications of such moves.
Philip Saunders: Yes, absolutely. So over the last 7 years or so, the dollar has been in a cyclical bull market cycle, so the dollar basically is riding high at the moment and there is a general assumption that it will remain dominant but really it is basically a question of sort of confidence.
So what we are saying is that there is likely to be a cyclical bear market in the dollar and that is putting any kind of secular consideration aside but this time around, given the timing and given the emergence of China as a potential contender, which hasn’t been the case really with I mean Japan and Germany basically (both became significant economies but they never really challenged the dominance of the dollar), this time around China is more serious and China basically has the scope to develop deep local markets and take on the attributes of a sort of a major reserve currency.
Lindsay Williams: Sahil, that sounds like a lofty ambition for China, especially as it is still almost an adolescent when it comes to economic growth. Do you think it is dangerous to even think about the Chinese currency becoming a store of value even 10, 15, 20 years hence?
Sahil Mahtani: No, I think it is largely inevitable. I think a lot of scepticism on China focuses on the fact that there are many problems related to debt and deleveraging but actually China has a history of material and quite sweeping reforms that routinely transform the Chinese economy.
A famous case is the SOEs, for example a few years ago, shadow banking growth was a major problem and today you see that asset growth in shadow banking is negligible. Since 2017, we have seen a significant improvement in returns on equity for state-owned companies. As it gathers speed, you will see more importance placed on the renminbi in international markets.
Lindsay Williams: More importance in international markets but will the average industries, Philip, for example, be able to make that transition, both psychological and physical, from dollars to renminbi?
Philip Saunders: I think this is not necessarily going to happen abruptly because Chinese capital markets are – you know the process of opening up has been relatively tentative so far but we suspect that that will become more pronounced and one of the things that this is driving this, of course, is the sort of strategic rivalry between China and the US is now sort of out in the open. US policy has clearly changed. Under Trump, America has effectively used the dollar and the US payment system as a weapon and inevitably that is prompting a reaction and it is likely to actually speed up the process of Chinese reform and it is likely to sort of speed up a multi-polar world.
Lindsay Williams: Just staying with you, Philip, on that point that you just made about weaponization, is that hastening the de-dollarisation process do you think unintentionally by the Trump regime?
Philip Saunders: Yes. I think they probably don’t understand the ramifications of what is essentially a sort of shorter term policy, particularly vis-à-vis the likes of Iran, but those actions have – you know, again you have seen a response from Europe in terms of recognising that basically it is dependent on the US and, when the US says that you are not allowed to trade with Iran, literally the US has the ability to actually sort of enforce that simply because Europe is deeply integrated into the sort of system of dollar payments internationally.
So vis-à-vis China, I think that the sort of opening of Chinese eyes really sort of came at the time of the Global Financial Crisis. Up until then, they ran the currency – you know it was quite tightly managed against the dollar. In a way, basically, it was like a currency board and I think progressively the steps would indicate that they recognise that they are insufficiently independent of the US monetary system in effect and the US credit cycle and they have progressively been taking steps to boost domestic growth, for example, become less dependent on exports and to build up their own payment systems.
Lindsay Williams: Sahil, we have spoken about some of them but perhaps you could highlight some of the other key factors that are driving the process of de-dollarisation.
Sahil Mahtani: Yes, I think Philip is absolutely right about the international environment that is compelling China to push in this direction and, in fact, other countries in Europe to push away from the dollar but there are also internal changes in China’s economy which mean an accelerated drive to internationalise the currency is becoming an important aspect of policy-making.
So, essentially, you know China’s working age population share peaked in 2016 and will decline going forward. That is well-known. I think what is less well-known is the fact that demographics drove half the increase in Chinese household savings since the 70’s according to the IMF and today China’s current account would be negative without distortionary policy.
So if you have a current account deficit going forward, China would prefer to borrow in its own currency rather than in foreign currency denominated debt in perpetuity. So that is one internal reason that they may wish to accelerate the internationalisation of the renminbi and I think other emerging market countries are also seeing their trade patterns become less dependent on the US.
You know 15 years ago about 20% of East Asian value-added went to the US. Today it is 10% and so such countries may find it to their advantage to sign swap agreements with the Chinese central banks, as they have been doing, and conduct trade in the renminbi. So it is not going to happen overnight but I think the direction of travel is fairly clear.
Lindsay Williams: Philip, this is a lovely precursor to a written piece that you are going to be putting out quite soon, a far more comprehensive piece than this podcast could possibly cover, but I just want to ask you the final question now. What are the implications for capital markets, capital flows? For example, it is not just a change of a symbol on a screen or a ticker and it is not just someone signing something different on a customs form relating to a container. So what are the implications for world trade as well? Although it is not going to happen overnight, there must be some implications.
Philip Saunders: Yes, there are certainly some fairly profound implications because it means that we have been in this sort of dollar environment whereby the sort of principal sort of reference for riskless returns has been US T-bills and that increasingly is going to change. That means that, you know, in the past we used to comment that when the US economy caught a cold, the rest of the world got pneumonia and we are moving away from that environment. So the US can have a cold or possibly pneumonia and the impact internationally is going to be less. In terms of basically how you think about diversification, that is going to be influenced by that sort of albeit slow burn development.
So I think in a way basically the other point to note is that the collateral that has backed the dollar system has eroded and the US used to be the world’s leading net creditor nation. It ceased to be that sometime ago and is now obviously overwhelmingly the world’s leading debtor nation. So in a sense the emperor might not be completely naked but basically it is sort of clearly wearing fewer clothes. But I think the immediate implication really is that if we are going to go into a cyclical dollar bear market, if you have secular or longer term structural drivers coming into play as well, then again it could be that the next cyclical bear cycle in the dollar is somewhat more vicious.
Now I know it is very difficult to think in those terms at the moment because the dollar basically has been extraordinarily strong for some time and so that seems to be the norm but the next downturn again is going to basically have some cyclical drivers as well.
There is one final thing that is worth noting. You know, in terms of actually the paper covers, sort of the dollars rise to dominance and a key factor behind this was obviously the size of the economy and the growth of the economy but it was also the pricing of commodities in dollars, particularly because the US was a major oil importer because it was a relatively high cost oil producer and that really put the Middle East on the map and basically oil, the key commodity, was priced in dollars.
It is extremely interesting to note that the pipelines now flowing from Russia to China, through which China is going to get a lot of its oil in the future, again is resulting in the pricing of oil in renminbi. Quite understandably, from a Chinese perspective, they would prefer to buy commodities in renminbi rather than having to go through the dollar. Really, the principal customer for oil - Middle Eastern oil - is now not the US any more. It is China and again we can see the shift towards basically the ‘renminbi-isation’ of contracts.
So this really is gathering momentum and what we also see in the paper is that historically shifts in currency status of this nature have tended to actually happen with a lag and, when they have happened, they have tended to happen in a fairly material form. So it is something that asset allocators really do need to be paying attention to now.
Lindsay Williams: It is almost an inexorable momentum that you have just described. Thank you very much for your time, gentlemen. That was Philip Saunders, Co-Head of Multi-Asset Growth, and Sahil Mahtani, Strategist, both from Investec Asset Management in London.