With the dollar index now 10 points below its recent cycle highs from early January, nervous dollar bulls are starting to reevaluate their initial assumption that this would be a short-term pullback, and many are worried that this could be the start of a new secular bear market. In this week’s MacroVoices podcast, host Erik Townsend invited two of the show’s most popular guests, Raoul Pal and Julian Brigden, two well-respected analysts whose research commands high fees from institutional investors, to discuss complacent equity markets, the timing of the next correction and whether US interest rates will “back up” another 50 basis points.
Townsend started by asking his guests to emphasize areas where they disagree to try and help listeners develop a better understanding of how the two analysts formulate their ideas about markets. But their discussion soon turned to the US dollar, which has been exasperating for the three longtime dollar bulls.
Pal admitted that the dollar’s persistent weakness was beginning to make him nervous as he's been losing money on his dollar trades for a dangerous stretch. However, he believes the “underlying basis for why the dollar bull market should still be in play” is still there.
“Raoul: My view, like yours, is bullish dollars. Now, the problem is we’ve only had two dollar bull markets in history, one in the early 80s and one in the late 90s. So we have a very small data sample to look at the behavior of dollar bull markets. But what I did notice is no dollar bull market has had a weekly close down more than 10%. Once it goes more than 10% it’s generally a reversal. So that’s a kind of—not so much a line in the sand but a guideline for me.
Now, we’re very much there now. We’re at 9.5% negative on a weekly basis. So it’s starting to make me concerned. There’s plenty of support levels around here as well. I use DeMark Indicators and they are counting towards a reversal. We know that the market positioning is very high. So for me it’s really crucial that the dollar does hold.
I think the underlying case for why the dollar bull market should still be in play is still there. But what we need is some sort of change of sentiment within the market, whether it’s either a renewed belief in much faster rate rises in the US or it’s weaker economic growth. The dollar has a kind of smile where it rallies in either/or but falls when we’re in the Goldilocks phase, which we’ve been having recently. So I’m looking at that.
I’m obviously nervous on my view because it has been going against me. And I’ve been in the trade for a long, long time now so, in Euro terms it’s about 148 and a half. So I’m now really finessing the idea does it move further than here?
If we look at the previous dollar bull markets they tend to go much further, so it would tend to suggest there’s maybe another 15 or 20% upside in the dollar over time. I also look at—and something we’ll probably talk about later—the comparison between this dollar bull market and the dollar bull market leading into the 90s is remarkably similar. The pattern almost fits exactly. And that was the period going into 1999 where we had a correction in the dollar. At that time it went about 8.5% and then it turned around and started rallying as economic growth started falling and rates started easing off a bit. The Europeans at the time were raising rates still. And that whole scenario, we saw actually the dollar go much, much higher. And so that’s what I’m looking for. If I’m wrong, the world’s a different place, and there’s a number of trade opportunities from that. But I still remain a dollar bull but a nervous one.”
Brigden says he remains a committed dollar bull, and sees the greenback rising in either one of two scenarios: the greenback will climb as equities and bond price fall in a "risk off rally" where the dollar becomes the haven asset. His other "risk on" case involves the dollar and stocks climbing alongside yieds. Hoping to avoid confusion with his fund's long-Europe trades, Brigden also said it's important to specify what exactly one means when they're talking about going long, or shorting the dollar.
“Julian: So I think one of the things—and I would concur pretty much with everything that Raoul said—I think one of the observations that I would make is that we’ve got to be a little bit careful of what we call a dollar. Because I think there’s a great temptation to look at some of the dollar indexes, in particular the Euro, and say, well, that’s indicative of what the dollar is doing. And I don’t really believe that is the case.
I think we have been as a shop very bullish, and I think it was on your show, Erik, talking about how we saw the growth pickup coming in Europe. We were singularly bullish, the dollar backing end of April beginning of May, for our clients—sorry, singularly bullish, Euro end of April beginning of May, for our clients. And that was on the break of—we started to see break above 108 in the Euro. In actual fact, we just advocated 24 hours ago to start taking profits in those long Euro positions.
But the point is that things like the DXY are essentially Euros. I mean, they’ve got some Swiss Francs in there, some Swedish Krona, and those are both pegged effectively to the Euro. So you really, I think you have to be a bit careful.
I think what we’ve seen a lot this year is a repricing of the growth-inflation story in Europe. And I think that’s one of the reasons why the dollar has been underperforming. So I’m not quite as concerned about this 10% line in the sand. I think Raoul makes some good observations on that, but I would say that I think to get the next kicker we need to see some developments in story here in the US.
We’re either going to have to see a—and this is my fear—we’re going to see a risk-off dollar rally. So you could have a situation where you can get a correction in bond markets and a correction in equities, and you can actually get the dollar rising because it’s a safe haven vehicle. Or we move into the latter half of the year, we get the Fed to start to shrink the balance sheet—I talked to your listeners about this before—I think that’s potentially a very bullish event. And particularly as well in early 2018 if we get the Trump tax cut.
And my sources in D.C. tell me that still the odds—even though Trump doesn’t seem to be able to put his trousers on straight any day of the week—that the odds are somewhere around 65-70% that we get a tax deal. And it will definitively include repatriation. So I think, to me, I’m still in that structural bull environment for the dollar. But it—we may have quite a few months to wait still. And in that interim, I think what we’re doing is just repricing the Euro.”
Turning the conversation to equities, Brigden said the US market is showing signs of a "classic bubble," meanwhile, rising interest rates and a hoped-for reversal in the dollar would remove two of the fundamental cases for being long equities.
“Just because we’d had this incredibly good run, we think that a lot of the outperformance of the European stock market had been predicated on Euro weakness and also low bond yields. And both of those we think are in the process of changing. So we scaled back our belief in this European outperformance trade at this stage.
I think the US equity market, we seem to be going through this game of rotation. And once again, to differentiate between markets, you know, in the same way that you can’t look at the dollar as just a single thing. What we’ve got is we’ve had up until the last week or so really very aggressive outperformance by a relatively narrow group of stocks. And those stocks—and you know we’ve talked about it in a number of publications—are increasingly looking like what I would call a classic bubble, and I think I’ve talked on your show about a classic bubble. It’s just chart pattern we look for, Erik.”
Meanwhile, Pal said “there are opportunities” in equities among the ongoing changes in underlying market conditions:
“Raoul: Well, for me, I would like go back to the business cycle. You know, we looked at it last year and the business cycle weakened significantly, gained traction again, and bounced again. I mean, it’s done this a couple of times now. It’s tiresome, but it is what it is. Because I much prefer it when we get to the bottom of a cycle—we know when to invest etc. But waiting for this is slightly painful.
But until economic growth weakens in any meaningful way, the equity market will continue to grind higher, volatility will remain low, until something changes. Now there is—and that’s structural volatility. There are opportunities—and I think Julien will talk a bit about this—for spikey volatility where there is an opportunity for a risk-off, which may not be pervasive and may not last very long. We won’t get anything that lasts long and we won’t get a structural shift in volatility until the business cycle weakens.”
Pal also believes that interest rates could head back toward 3% in the medium term if President Donald Trump manages to pass tax reform.
“Raoul: Yeah, again, we need to talk about path and we need to talk about time horizons. So, for me, the path is—I’m less interested in—I think it’s a pretty benign environment for US rates. Yes, if Trump does manage to pass something in terms of economic stimulus in terms of some sort of fiscal policy or taxation, whatever it may be, then can rates back up a bit? Yeah.
But, for me, I’m indifferent from a backup in rates from, you know, 225 where they are today at ten years, to, 275. Fifty basis points I don’t really care, because I think the risk reward is that, at the bottom of the business cycle—which we’ve identified has to come and will come within the next call it 18 months—the bottom of the business cycle should see bond yields at 50 basis points or even less. So that makes, even with a backup in yields to let’s say 275, it still makes it kind of a five for one risk reward.
So, for me, I look through the speed bumps and look at the horizon. The horizon for me is 50 basis points at the bottom of the next business cycle, which has to come. Well, it doesn’t have to come, but the probability is extremely high that it comes in the next 18 months or two years.”
Brigden said that while Pal may be correct, he wasn't comfortable with the time frame, saying it could take longer for bond yields to start moving higher again. But the more important question is when will we see the next market crisis commence, and how will we get there. That's the key topic of discussion in the next section:
“Julian: Yeah, it is Erik. I mean, it’s certainly in the next, shall we say, six months. And I think it’s—Raoul and I talk about this a lot and it’s one of the things that I think we believe is one of the strengths of the product: we tend to sort of chew through our stories. And our views are structurally very, very similar, but often our timelines are slightly different in how we get there.
And my concern is I can ultimately see Raoul’s right, I mean, I think we could get another very nasty downturn. I think we could get a—you know, it’s hard to argue against the sort of structural deflationary trends or disinflationary trends that you see globally. The question is how do you get to that next crisis? Do you sort of go quietly into the night, and we walk in one day and ISM stands at 45, and everybody says, wow, QE doesn’t work. Or do you get there a different way?
And my inclination is I believe we’ll actually get there a slightly different way. And at the moment the biggest risk that I see in markets is this chasm between, as I said, equity market pricing and bond pricing. And with that you can throw in Vol. And my biggest fear is that we’re going to get to the next crisis, not via immediate economic weakness, but actually via strength.
And it isn’t so much in the US. As I said, I think there’s a chance that we get a burst of very aggressive activity. That’s sometime in 2018 if we get this Trump stimulus through.
But when I look at the world, actually, my biggest fear—and I think this is interesting for US listeners of yours, because generally Americans don’t look too broadly at the rest of the world, they tend to be very focused certainly in financial networks, they tend to be very focused on what’s going on in the US—I actually think the biggest risk is Europe. I look at European growth models—and we’ve talked about this—but these things continue to strengthen. And the inflation picture, actually, I think is just really going to rip.
And I was reading today how one of my peers was talking about how, for the fourth time, ECB’s going to have to upgrade their growth forecasts. Well, I just think they’re going to have to keep upgrading and upgrading their growth forecasts. And what I fear is that we’re on the cusp of a repeat of events that we saw in the spring of 2015. So, if you remember, at that point ECB had launched QE in the end of 2014, the DAX had ripped higher, and bund yields were locked at zero. And then, one day we walked in and the bund market finally said, screw this, I am repricing because what’s the point of holding bunds at zero, if the DAX is going through the stratosphere.”
Both men are also worried about how shifting demographics, notably how the aging baby boomer generation will impact markets. With the largest-ever wave of retirees set to leave the workforce in the next few years, equity markets are facing a terrifying transition: When millions of buyers are, for the first time, forced to sell.
You can listen to the podcast in full below: