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Vaccine arrival expected to trigger dollar slump in 2021

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Wall Street analysts expect the arrival of a vaccine against coronavirus to send the dollar sinking next year as confidence returns to the global economy.

Big banks with already negative views on the dollar for 2021 cut their forecasts further this month after clinical trials bolstered hopes that vaccines could become widely available next year, sparking an economic rebound that encourages a hunt for riskier bets.

The dollar is typically in demand in times of stress, reflecting its traditional role as a haven for investors and savers, as seen in a startling rally at the height of the coronavirus outbreak in March. Now some currency watchers believe a vaccine changes everything.

“Vaccine distribution we believe will check off all of our bear market signposts, allowing the dollar to follow a similar path to that it experienced from the early to mid-2000s,” Citi analyst Calvin Tse said in a research note. “Can the dollar decline 20 per cent next year alone? We think yes,” the bank added.

That would be a big move in currency terms. According to consensus forecasts compiled by Bloomberg, investors anticipate the dollar index will slip roughly 3 per cent from its current level by the end of next year. The median forecast is for the euro to reach $1.21 over that time period, from about $1.18 now.

Line chart of US Dollar index showing Dollar has fallen sharply this year

A fall of 20 per cent for the dollar, on a trade-weighted basis, would be the biggest since the slide that started in 2001. But that 33 per cent drop took several years, when other currencies — particularly in emerging markets — pushed higher as investors sought out countries with higher interest rates and rapid growth. It lasted until the 2008 financial crisis.

Citi expects the US Federal Reserve to continue providing stimulus to the economy and to “err on the side of caution” before considering interest rate increases even as the global economic recovery speeds up. That could encourage investors to find a home for their money elsewhere, as rising inflation expectations in the US reduce the dollar’s relative attractiveness and investors target faster-growing countries that may tighten monetary policy sooner.

The dollar index — a measure of the currency against six peers — has already declined this year, falling more than 4 per cent since the start of 2020, after the Fed wiped out some of the yield advantage US assets had enjoyed over their peers. The euro has gained nearly 6 per cent against the buck since January, while the Australian dollar has marched more than 4 per cent higher.

But this year’s drop in the dollar index is minor compared with its gains in previous years: it rose almost 13 per cent in 2014 and 9 per cent in 2015. Buying into US markets has been “almost unavoidable” over the past decade, according to analysts at Goldman Sachs, as corporate profits boomed and the Fed raised rates while many other central banks stayed closer to zero. This has made the currency expensive, setting it up for large falls ahead, said Zach Pandl, co-head of the bank’s global foreign exchange research. Goldman Sachs expects the dollar to slide 6 per cent on a trade-weighted basis over the next 12 months.

Bar chart of % gain/loss against the US dollar showing Most G10 currencies have risen against the buck in 2020

Mr Pandl said the currency should weaken even if the US economy gathers pace because of its role as a “barometer” of the health of the global economy, falling when growth is buoyant and rising at times of slowdowns.

“Even if the US economy performs quite well, we think the dollar can weaken substantially as investors look for higher returns outside of the US and exit the safe havens that they have been in throughout the Covid period,” he added.

Andrew Sheets, a cross-asset strategist at Morgan Stanley has pencilled in a 4 per cent drop in the dollar index and expects the Norwegian, Swedish, New Zealand and Australian currencies to outperform once the vaccine is widely available. The euro and emerging markets peers such as the Brazilian real, the South African rand and the Russian rouble also have room to appreciate against the buck, he said. Mr Sheets sees the euro trading at $1.25 by the end of next year.

“We are in the perfect environment for a rally in risky assets, a weaker dollar and stronger growth-sensitive currencies through the end of the year,” said George Saravelos, global head of currency research at Deutsche Bank.

But some strategists are decidedly more cautious, in light of the surge in coronavirus cases worldwide and the economic damage of renewed lockdown measures.

“We are just very bullish on the dollar as we go into year-end,” said Mark McCormick, global head of FX strategy at TD Securities. “Every single piece of good news has been emphasised and every single bad reality has been shoved aside.”

Analysts at Barclays have also flagged concerns that too small or too delayed a fiscal package from US policymakers could take the shine off risky assets and shore up demand for havens.

“Markets at some point have to respect the present tense rather than just look ahead,” added Mr McCormick.

Goldman’s Mr Pandl argues, however, that the positive vaccine trials significantly reduce investors’ hunger for safety. “The vaccine developments are sufficiently positive that most investors should be positioning for dollar weakness today,” he said.



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Oil price jumps above $70 after attacks aimed at Saudi oil facilities

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Oil prices jumped above $70 a barrel for the first time in 14 months after Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter, said its energy facilities had been attacked on Sunday, targeting “the security and stability” of global supplies.

A drone attack from the sea on a petroleum storage tank at Ras Tanura, one of the largest oil shipping ports in the world, took place on Sunday morning, the kingdom said.

In the evening, shrapnel from a ballistic missile fell in Dhahran, where state oil company Saudi Aramco has its headquarters and near where thousands of employees and their families live.

While Saudi Arabia’s ministry of energy said the attacks “did not result in any injury or loss of life or property”, and a person familiar with the matter said no production had been affected, the attacks have still unsettled oil markets that have rebounded strongly in recent months.

Brent crude, the international benchmark, rose 2 per cent to a high of $71.16 a barrel while West Texas Intermediate, the US benchmark, rose by a similar amount to a high of $67.86 a barrel.

Yemen’s Iran-allied Houthi fighters claimed responsibility for the attacks and said they had also focused on military targets in the Saudi cities of Dammam, Asir and Jazan.

A Houthi military spokesperson said the group had fired 14 bomb-laden drones and eight ballistic missiles in a “wide operation in the heart of Saudi Arabia”.

Amrita Sen at Energy Aspects emphasised that while a direct hit on oil supplies appeared to have been avoided, the threat to the market would still be taken seriously by oil traders.

“The oil price was already on a strong footing after Saudi Arabia and Opec’s decision last week to keep restricting production,” she said.

Brent crude, the international oil benchmark, has risen close to $70 a barrel since the cartel and allies outside the group, including Russia, decided not to unleash a flood of crude on to the market.

Amid uncertainty about the oil market outlook as the coronavirus crisis continues to have an impact on crude demand, the group decided against raising production by 1.5m barrels a day from April.

Given the supply curbs, while the kingdom has the extra production capacity to tap into, “geopolitical threats to supply will add a premium to the price”, Sen added.

The kingdom’s state media outlet said earlier in the day that the Saudi-led military coalition confronting the Houthis had intercepted missiles and drones aimed at “civilian targets” without indicating their location.

The Eastern Province, where Dhahran is located, is where much of Saudi Aramco’s oil facilities are located. The attack is the most severe since September 2019.

At that time the kingdom was rocked by missile and drone fire that hit an important processing facility and two oilfields, temporarily shutting off more than half of the country’s crude output.

The Houthis have ramped up assaults on Saudi Arabia through airborne attacks and explosive-laden boats and mines in the Red Sea, laying bare the vulnerability of the country’s energy infrastructure despite the kingdom’s production prowess and its hold over the oil market.

“The frequency of these attacks is rising, even if the impact on energy infrastructure appears limited,” said Bill Farren-Price, a director at research company Enverus. “We know the capacity to cause serious damage exists, so this will boost the risk premium for oil.”



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Rio Tinto set to start negotiations over Mongolian mine

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Rio Tinto is set to start face-to-face negotiations with the government of Mongolia as its seeks to complete the $6.75bn expansion of a huge copper project in the Gobi desert. 

The Anglo-Australian group is sending a team of senior executives to the capital Ulaanbaatar to try and hammer out a new financing agreement so that the development timeline can be maintained and underground caving operations can start later this year.

The discussions will focus on a number of issues including tax, a new power agreement and benefit sharing, according to people with knowledge of the situation.

Some government officials want Rio to pay more than $300m of withholding taxes on income it has received from Oyu Tolgoi LLC, the Mongolian holding company that owns the mine. 

Rio receives a management service fee for running Oyu Tolgoi’s existing open pit and the underground project as well as interest on money it has lent the government to fund its share of the development costs.

However, the officials say it is “very difficult, if not impossible” to engage constructively on the issue because the payments are the subject of arbitration in London.

For its part, Rio believes the issue of withholding taxes is dealt with in the separate investment and shareholder agreements that cover its operations in the country.

The underground expansion of Oyu Tolgoi ranks as Rio’s most important growth project. At peak production it will be one of the world’s biggest copper mines, producing almost 500,000 tonnes a year.

Although Rio runs the existing operations and is in charge of the underground expansion project it does not have a direct stake in the mine.

It’s exposure comes through a 51 per cent stake in Turquoise Hill Resources, a Toronto-listed company. TRQ in turns owns 66 per cent of Oyu Tolgoi LLC, with the rest controlled by the government of Mongolia. 

The project has been beset by difficulties and is already two years late and $1.5bn over budget. The government said earlier this year that if the expansion is not economically beneficial to the country it would be necessary to “review and evaluate” whether it can proceed.

To that end the ruling Mongolian People’s party and its new prime minister Luvsannamsrain Oyun-Erdene are trying to replace the Underground Development Plan with an improved agreement.

Signed in 2015, this sets out the fees that Rio receives for managing the project as well as the interest rates on the cash Mongolia has borrowed to finance its share of construction costs.

However, it was never approved by Mongolia’s parliament and has become a focal point for critics who say the country should receive a greater share of the financial benefits.

Rio, which recently appointed a new chief executive, has told the government it is prepared to “explore” a reduction of its project management fees and loan interest rates as well as discuss tax.

However, analysts are sceptical that the two sides will be able to put a new agreement in place by June when a decision on whether to start caving operations must be taken if Oyu Tolgoi is to meet a new target for first production in October 2022.

Rio is also at loggerheads with TRQ on how to fund the cost overruns at Oyu Tolgoi. Last week, TRQ’s chief executive resigned after Rio said it planned to vote against his re-election at its annual shareholders’ meeting.

In a statement, Rio said it was committed to working with TRQ and the government of Mongolia to enable the successful delivery of the Oyu Tolgoi Project

“Aligning and co-ordinating our joint efforts to resolve the concerns of the Government . . . going forward is of the highest priority,” it said.



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Value investor John Rogers sees an end to Big Tech’s stock market dominance

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The veteran value investor John Rogers predicted the US is headed for a repeat of the “roaring twenties” a century ago that will finally encourage investors to dump tech stocks in favour of companies more sensitive to the economy.

The founder of Ariel Investments told the Financial Times in an interview that value investing “dinosaurs” like him stood to win as higher economic growth and rising interest rates took the air out of some of the hottest stocks of recent years.

Rogers, who has spent a near four-decade career focused on buying under-appreciated stocks, said the frenzied buying of special purpose acquisition companies, or Spacs, signalled frothiness in parts of the market, even while a coming economic boom underpinned other share prices.

“This will be a sustainable recovery. I think there’s going to be kind of a roaring twenties again,” Rogers said, adding that the strength of the economic recovery would surprise people and challenge the Federal Reserve’s ultra-dovish monetary policy.

The US central bank is “overly optimistic that they can keep inflation under control”, he said, and higher bond market interest rates would reduce the value of future earnings for highly popular growth stocks such as tech companies and for the kinds of speculative companies coming to market in initial public offerings or via deals with Spacs.

“Spacs are a sign that growth stocks are topping. A signal that the market is frothy,” said Rogers, a self-styled contrarian and famed for his Patient Investor newsletter for clients that debuted in 1983.

Value investing is based on identifying cheap companies that are trading below their true worth, an approach long espoused by Warren Buffett. Value stocks and those sensitive to the economic cycle boomed after the internet bubble burst in 2000, but the investment strategy has been well beaten over the past decade by fast-growing stocks, led by US tech giants. 

“We’ve been looking like the dinosaurs for so long,” said Rogers. “We’ve been waiting for that booming economic recovery since 2009.”

Proponents of value investing believe that the combination of expensive growth stock valuations and a robust recovery from the pandemic will cause a significant switch between the two investing approaches.

Higher bond market interest rates reduce the relative appeal of owning growth stocks based on their future earnings power.

When 10-year bond yields rise, “growth stocks look way, way too expensive versus value,” said Rogers. “Value stocks are going to come out of the recovery very strong, they’re going to have a tailwind from an earnings perspective. Their earnings are going to be here and now, not 20, 30 years down the road.”

The Russell 1000 Value index outperformed the equivalent growth index by 6 percentage points in February, rising 5.8 per cent versus a drop of 0.1 per cent for the growth index. That was the biggest outperformance for value since March 2001, according to analysts at Bank of America.

“Although rising rates triggered the rotation, we see a host of other reasons to prefer value over growth,” the analysts wrote last week, “including the profit cycle, valuation, and positioning that can drive further outperformance.”

Rogers said he expected higher overall stock market volatility from rising interest rates this year but value should reward investors as it did “20 years ago once the internet bubble burst”. Ariel is bullish on “fee generating financials” and Rogers said preferred names included KKR, Lazard and Janus Henderson, while it was also bullish on traditional media, including CBS Viacom and Nielsen.

Chicago-based Ariel is one of the few large black-owned investment companies in the US, with $15bn of assets under management. It manages the oldest US mid-cap value fund, dating from 1986. 



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