USD and CNY(CNH): The fiscal cliff and a Fed that will hike until things break while China set to ease
Entering 2022, it seems that every appearance from the Fed is more hawkish than the last. Meanwhile China has signalled the opposite: that it will bring easing and support for a Chinese economy heavily impacted by official moves against excesses in its enormous real estate sector along with a crackdown on tech companies, both of which have dented markets there as well as the real economy. The overlay of a “zero tolerance” policy on Covid has seen additional limits on economic activity.
It is hard to find historical parallels for the current degree of policy and economic performance divergence between the US and China, but it’s similar to the late 2014 comparison of the US with Europe, when the Fed was ever so slowly tightening while the ECB was set for a very delayed debut with its first proper QE policy. Eventual USDCNH moves in 2022 are hardly likely to resemble the almost cataclysmic slide in the EURUSD from late 2014 into early 2015, although it does appear likely that broad CNH softness should mark much of at least the first half of 2022. This comes after the policy shift toward easing was made clear by Chinese officialdom and has crystallised in December with a cut to banks’ reserve ratio requirement, at a time when virtually all other major central banks are in some form of policy tightening. That includes the Powell Fed, which signalled an acceleration to the end of its QE programme at the December FOMC meeting. The minutes of that meeting released in early January even indicated a robust discussion of whether outright quantitative tightening should be pursued simultaneously with rate hikes in 2022. This was something the Fed only did in 2018 (eventually triggering a market crash late that year) once it had several rate hikes under its belt.
China is starting its easing cycle with the renminbi having run, by the end of 2021, to its highest level against an officially designated basket of currencies since late 2015. This policy was perhaps in part based on a desire to reduce the inflationary impact of rising prices from commodities in 2021; with the policy divergence and valuation extreme, the CNY looks set to weaken for much of 2021. An additional concern for China is the degree to which climate priorities see the country sanctioned with new trade policies aimed at its carbon-intensive energy mix. See more in the chart below.
The US dollar could prove resilient for some of the early part of 2022 against the usual pro-cyclical currencies. However, it’s likely to have a hard time launching a broad, aggravated extension of the strength we saw in late 2021, as the longer end of the US yield curve may prove relatively anchored. The latter is possible, despite high inflation rates, as the market probably correctly anticipates that the Fed can only perform quantitative tightening and raising rates for so long before breaking something, like the markets first and eventually the economy itself with an incoming recession risk. And even if the Fed is behind the curve, the bounce-back in the US economy will also be tamed by the tightening in real GDP from the huge rise in energy prices from pandemic lows, as well as prospects for sustained high prices going forward, especially from the green transformation. In the background a fiscal cliff, or drag, is baked into the cake for next year. Once the Fed “achieves” this outcome, we will see—you guessed it—a new round of fiscal easing that brings with it a new round of inflation even if the latter falls back considerably from an early 2022 peak and bases at a still-high level.
EUR and JPY: Yen far too cheap. ECB capitulation could support Euro
The euro and particularly the JPY performed poorly in Q4, with Europe finding itself in a very bad place as natural gas and power prices soared to multiples of their former highs. This was in part down to reduced Russian natural gas supplies and the geopolitical situation over Ukraine that is still weighing heavily as of this writing. Not least among the negative impacts on Europe in Q4, the latest wave of Delta-variant Covid took Europe all the way back to piecemeal lockdown mode before the wildfire of Omicron (hopefully) marks the sudden end of Covid by spring of this year. Come March and even February, the ECB may find itself in hot water for its insistence on maintaining a negative-policy rate. A possible and likely eventual capitulation this year on the need to start on the path to hiking the policy rates back to at least 0 percent could see a considerable back-up in the EUR across the board, setting EURUSD on the path toward 1.2000 by the year end, if not sooner.
In Japan, still relatively anchored long US treasury yields and very weak US real yields, together with volatile asset markets and possibly troubled times for bond investors (does credit risk not exist anymore?) offer solid conditions for JPY strength. In addition, Japanese policy focus under the new leadership of PM Kishida is on stimulating demand domestically to address the inequality from Abenomics—this could spark domestic demand. Meanwhile, the Bank of Japan quietly more or less stopped expanding its balance sheet in 2021 and stopped other QE asset purchases last year as well. As the chart below shows, the yen is at an historic low in valuation terms and could be set for a sharp mean reversion for a considerable portion of 2022.
Chart: JPY vs. CNY – a tale of two extremes
The Chart below shows the JP Morgan Real Effective Exchange Rate (CPI adjusted and trade weighted) for the Japanese yen (black) and the Chinese renminbi/yuan (blue). Note that this is not the first time we have seen a remarkable divergence in relative strength and that on the prior similar episode starting in late 2015, the mean reversion was profound.