There is an enormous dichotomy in foreign exchange markets that has wide-ranging implications for the global economy. In Europe, most currencies float freely against the U.S. dollar. In Asia and the Mideast, most do not.
What this has meant in practice is two things. First, as the U.S. dollar has weakened, it has done so only against those currencies which are free floating. This has meant the lion’s share of any adjustments in global imbalances have fallen on the likes of Japan and Germany. Second, those countries which are pegged have had to resort to currency intervention and a massive build-up of foreign reserves to stop their currencies from appreciating. This is inflationary for those countries, and is one reason there is a housing and equities boom in Asia right now.
But, as the dollar continues to weaken, those countries with pegs will be under pressure to drop their peg or to revalue their pegs higher. The Bloomberg video linked below explains. The dichotomy whereby the adjustment process is done only through free-floating currencies is inherently unstable – and invites a nationalistic response.
A busted peg in any major U.S. trading partner’s currency is likely to have a very negative psychological impact on currency markets and severe knock-on effects. These are what I call digital events. It’s all or nothing, on or off. Either the peg is revalued enormously or there will be continuing pressure.
As an example, look back to 1998 when the Russians attempted to devalue the ruble. The immediate effect was a sense that the ruble was not devalued enough, leading to an all-out assault on the currency and a much more massive devaluation which in turn triggered default.
I would anticipate a similar albeit less pronounced dynamic were the Chinese or the Saudis to revalue significantly. There would be tremendous downward pressure on the greenback globally, more pressure on the busted pegs and increasing pressure on other pegged currencies to revalue. The result, of course, would be higher interest rates in the United States and a likely double dip.
Busted pegs are not something I necessarily expect. However, this is the type of exogenous shock that is a clear downside risk to my more benign muddle through baseline scenario – and one reason to prefer gold over bonds in reducing exposure to equities.